How Was Liberating Insight Related to the Development of the Four Jhānas in Early Buddhism? A New Perspective through an Interdisciplinary Approach

Grzegorz Polak


The precise nature and status of the meditative states known as the four jhāna-s in early Buddhist soteriology is one of the most controversial subjects of early Buddhist studies. Amongst the most unclear issues connected with jhāna meditation is its relation to liberating insight. There appear to be fundamental discrepancies related to this issue in the Suttapiṭaka itself and in the later Buddhist meditative texts. These discrepancies appear to be sometimes difficult or even impossible to reconcile.

In this paper I attempt to present a model of liberating insight as an intrinsic quality of the jhāna meditative state through an interdisciplinary approach relying on textual studies as well as on the new developments in the field of rapidly developing cognitive sciences. In the first part of the paper I analyze various concepts of liberating insight present in the Suttapiṭaka and the way they are connected to the development of the four jhāna-s. Then I point out some fundamental difficulties connected with the traditional Buddhist model of insight understood as a meditative method on its own, distinct from a jhāna meditative state. Later I attempt to propose an explanation of how and why the original concept of liberating insight as an intrinsic quality of jhāna states underwent a radical evolution, which has unfortunately led to both textual discrepancies and serious problems on a practical and psychological level. In order to provide a plausible model of liberating insight as an intrinsic aspect of a jhāna state, I will also refer to some important new developments from the field of cognitive sciences, which provide a new way of explaining how human cognition works. In order to show that my model is possible on a practical level, I will also point out some meditative developments from the later history of Buddhism, where insight was seen in a way somewhat similar to what I am proposing.

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