Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
The earliest Buddhist texts state that the Buddha's enlightenment occured in the 4th jhana. It is the later tradition that begins to emphasize vipassana, prajna, and so on. It is this "knowledge" stream that ultimately won out in the Buddhist tradition. This only makes sense, since it is insight that ultimately gives release in Buddhism. But usually, the two -- absorption and knowledge -- were corrodinated. This coordination is associated with the "argument from Yoga," viz., that there is no "higher" knowledge without the "purification" (termed variously prasada; samskrta; sattva-vishudda, etc) which comes from dhyana/samadhi. Originally, the two were already coordinated in dhyana, since this was what dhyana originally meant: a kind of yogic "seeing." Later, jhana came to mean mere absorption. And indeed, this is how the Yoga Sutras also defines dhyana -- as a kind of extended concentration (dharana).
The best scholarly account of the situation in the Pali canon is Schmitthausen's article on "liberting insight." Schmitthausen notes that in the Mahamalunkya Sutta (MN 1. 435), it is said that the attainment of cessation (nirodha-samapatti; samjna-veditya-nirodha) cannot be the basis of liberating insight. Basically, the argument there is that the function of insight (ajna) is dependent upon the function of samjna (conception/predication). But in nirodha, samjna ceases. Another text, Anguttara Nikaya 9.36 explicitly states that liberating insight is only possible in states of absorption that involve "ideation" (samjna). Other texts equate liberating insight with prajna, and state that for prajna to operate, samjna is necessary. The Jhana Sutta expressly states that prajna is possible in absorption only insofar as the absorption is one in which there is conception/perception (samjna).
Among "practitioner" scholars the tack is somewhat different. Analayo, takes up the issue in his book Sattipatthana, the Direct Road to Realization. He writes:
Upon further perusing the discourses one finds that they depict a variety of approaches to final realization. Two passages from the Anguttara Nikaya [AN 2.92-92], for example, describe a practitioner who is able to gain deep wisdom, though lacking proficiency in concentration.... in addition, the Yuganaddha Sutta... states that realization can be gained by either concentration or insight... (pp. 84-85).
But then Analayo backtracks, and performs a bit of exegetical "harmonization-hermeneutics" himself:
The controversy over the necessity or dispensability of absorption... is to some extent a misleading premise.... Calm and insight are two complementary aspects of mental development.... Some scholars have understood these two aspects of meditation to represent different goals. They assume the path of samatha proceeds via the ascending series of absorptions to the attainment of the cessation of cognition and feeling.... In contrast to this, the path of insight, at times mistakenly understood to be a process of pure intellectual reflection, supposedly leads to the ...cessation of ignorance.... Instead of seeing these passages as expressions of an "underlying tension" between two different paths to realization, they simply describe different aspects of what is basically one approach. (pp. 88-90; 91).
But to say that the two are "complementary aspects" assumes that the tradition springs fully formed from the head of Zeus. In other words, it takes them as "given" without any consideration of how the two are inter-related in the early Buddhist texts. In short, it treats the Buddhist dharma ahistorically -- as theologically complete from the start. It takes the final doctrine and transposes it to the beginnning of Buddhist history.
Alan Wallace's approach in The Bridge of Quiessence is more impatient and less open to the facts. He writes:
Regarding the general topic of the relationship between quiessence and insight practices in Indian Buddhism, Griffiths see it as an "excellent example of the uneasy bringing together of two radically different sets of soteriological methods and two radically different soteriological goals" [On Being Mindless, p. 23] If one sets aside for the moment the lofty attainment of cessation... the assertion that quiessence is incompatible with insight at this early stage is tantamount to arguing that a mind dominated by laxity and excitation is more suitable for the cultivation of insight...(pp. 11-12).
Here, his own mind "dominated by excitation," Wallace loses his rational train of thought. Griffiths point is not that quiessence is incompatible with insight. His point is primarily historical: that there were two very different soteriological trends and these trends were brought together or "harmonized" by the later tradition. That the two are "radically different" can be seen in their respective goals. And as we saw above, the Buddhist tradition was well aware of the fact that nirodha samapatti is not compatible with ajna or insight. Thus, we cannot simply "set aside... the lofty attainment of cessation."
Wallace then concludes his account of Griffiths with the following non-sequitor, complete with backhanded compliment:
It may be that by focussing on scholastic accounts of meditation and ignoring the fact that the Buddhist tradition has been a living tradition, Griffiths, for all his impressive erudition and philosophical acumen, has produced a fundamentally misleading interpretation of the attainment of cessation and the relationship between quiessence. (p. 13).... This comment is apparently intended to back up his claim in the opening pages of this chapter that "purely scholastic" acccounts "ignore whatever experiential basis may underlie those texts." (p. 7)
But, contrary to the claims of Wallace, there is never an appeal to an "experiential basis" in any of the texts he refers to. Such works are purely exegetical accounts. They simply refer to other texts, in a chain that goes back to the earliest sources, the authoritative Pali Canon. This is demonstrated by the fact that the "8 jhanas" are cobbled together from a variety of early sources and then knit together in a consistent, systematic manner in the later sources. In other words, the practice of the "8 jhanas" was never an aspect of the early tradition of Buddhism. It is an exegetical construct of the later tradition.