Recently, a jhāna-enthusiast1 on Facebook was unhappy about the right concentration then right mindfulness article in Dharma.direct #2. It didn't help that he hadn't even read the article prior criticizing.
I offered to him to write in this Debate section, but he didn't pick it up, so I'll cover it myself.
Ultimately, what irked him was the perceived awfulness of reversing the traditional order of “… 7. right mindfulness, 8. right concentration” from the Eightfold path. For him, « the Noble Eightfold Path is quite specifically the path of jhāna. »
Personally, I think “it's the path of jhāna” only as much as the jhāna is what the practitioner needs to free oneself from ‘ignorance’. Wisdom and Liberation from ignorance are the goals of Buddhism.
The specific disease should dictate the appropriate antidote, not the preferred therapeutic course of the doctor… In support of such a perspective, the aggi sutta (SN 46.53) presents tranquillity, concentration and equanimity as mere antidotes to excitement… Then, concentration is merely one of the spokes, a trait to cultivate among several, when it is ‘timely’ to do so: neither a trait to focus particularly on, nor the culmination of the Path.
We could also note that the quest of the Buddha brought him to define the Middle Path, after seeing the inadequacy of asceticism to attain Freedom… but this asceticism was not just based on starving oneself, it was very much in line with practicing the jhāna as the priority (as the Buddha had learnt from his own teachers: Āḷāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta).
It's been pretty long established that actually there are two interrelated systems of meditation: one is called the development of serenity (samatha-bhāvanā) or development of concentration (samādhi-bhāvanā), the other the development of insight (vipassanā-bhāvanā) or development of wisdom (pañña-bhāvanā). They're not exclusive of one another, more different emphases.
Some —incl. my critic— might complain that samādhi-bhāvanā is literally found in the Canon, while vipassanā-bhāvanā isn't… but clinging to “the literal words” was rejected by the Buddha himself, that's precisely what the (often misinterpreted) simile of the raft (MN 22) is about! Moreover, the section on ‘ fools’ from the Numbered Discourses states clearly (AN 2.24) that
these two misrepresent the Realized One. What two? One who explains a discourse in need of interpretation as a discourse whose meaning is explicit. And one who explains a discourse whose meaning is explicit as a discourse in need of interpretation. These two misrepresent the Realized One.
Interpreting the Dhamma not only is allowed, but it is at times necessary: the literal interpretation of everything was explicitly rejected by the Buddha (or should I say “literally rejected”?). And, sure enough, a related sutta (AN 2.23) warns us against « explain[ing] what was not spoken by the Realized One as spoken by him », but that's not as if speaking of ‘mindfulness’ was speaking of something the Buddha didn't talk about: mahā satipaṭṭhāna sutta (DN 22) anyone?
There are two main ways to look at developing the spokes of the Eightfold Path in parallel rather than sequentially:
like a balanced meal is not made of vitamins only, of lipids only, etc. but made of an appropriate combination of all elements in appropriate quantities (appropriateness depending on the eater's needs), all the spokes are indeed cultivated in parallel;
like a spiral, each complete ‘round’ of the path leads to a new set of (hopefully improved) circumstances in which a new, complete ‘round’ can occur: the path is like a gradual purification.
An example of parallel cultivation can be found simply: while speaking, one might cultivate not only “right speech” (e.g. by restraint from idle chatter) but also “right concentration” (not getting distracted, incl. by one's own speech leading to unexamined ideas, thereby “losing the thread”), “right mindfulness” (paying attention to the reactions the speech is causing), “right action” (restraint from killing the bothering mosquito nearby)…
An example of spiraling cultivation may be found in how the inspiration from a “right view” (via reading / hearing a teaching) leads to developing morality, which leads to improved mindfulness, which leads to insights… allowing to further develop “right views”… e.g. gradually developing a more and more subtle understanding / perception of causality, of how the world unfolds, of what works and what doesn't… or of the three marks of existence (impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, selflessness). There's little direct representation of such a spiraling path in Buddhist iconography, but it aligns well with the notion that practice in one realm allows you to move to a higher realm in the next existence, a higher realm where practice will lead you to even higher realms… It also aligns well with the idea of practicing here to reach a Pure Land, a realm very supportive of further practice…
Either way, the Eightfold Path is usually represented by a (circular) wheel with 8 spokes, rather than an oriented line, and I don't think it's by mistake: there's an echo to the circularity of saṃsāra and there's the analogy that dukkha / suffering is like a wheel ill-adjusted to its axis, making a cart hop up and down… but it's primarily because it's ‘complete’, and because each spoke equally supports the whole.
Just like I don't think the classical division of the Eightfold Path in three categories (morality, cultivation, wisdom), thereby putting the first 2 spokes at the end, is by mistake.
Supportive of the idea that the Eightfold Path is not necessarily ‘culminating’ with “right concentration”, we also find the (saṅgīti sutta, DN 33):
Four ways of developing immersion further. There is a way of developing immersion further that leads to blissful meditation in the present life. There is a way of developing immersion further that leads to gaining knowledge and vision. There is a way of developing immersion further that leads to mindfulness and awareness. There is a way of developing immersion further that leads to the ending of defilements.
Four developments of concentration, to wit, that which when practised and expanded, conduces to (1) pleasure in this life; (2) acquisition of intuition and insight; (3) mindfulness and well-awareness; (4) destruction of spiritual intoxicants.
So, not only the Buddha asserted (in the mahā cattārīsaka sutta, MN 117) that the eightfold path culminates with “right knowledge”, or insight (sammā-ñāṇa), and “right liberation”, or release (sammā-vimutti) —thereby the culmination of holy life is not to master the jhāna, they're just one of the spokes of the wheel,— , but the Buddha also asserted (above) that the jhāna might explicitly precede / lead to mindfulness…
And if one is to quote MN 117 to highlight “right mindfulness precedes right concentration”, then one shouldn't miss the “in this context” also in the text! Moreover, on the basis that “right knowledge” is essentially “right view”, the spiraling perspective is also reinforced.
And, of course, there's the Pavāraṇā sutta (SN 8.7) which clearly indicates that the wisdom-liberated are much more numerous than the both-liberated (wisdom+jhāna)…
For the sake of clarity, this is not to say that the wisdom-liberated have not cultivated the jhāna at all… but they might have mostly used e.g. the first jhāna (which still allows for discursive thought, and therefore for a calm ‘analysis’ of phenomena) to get ‘disenchanted’ with the shimmering lights (cravings) used by Māra, to indeed ‘see’ reality as it is, to ‘know’ by themselves the three marks of existence, and to attain Freedom.
They might even have had glimpses of the higher jhāna, but contrarily to the ‘both-liberated’, they ‘see’ these with wisdom, they ‘understand’ these with wisdom, but they didn't need to “directly experience that dimension in every way”2.
Even the higher fetters (those distinguishing non-returners from fully-Liberated arahants) are given up thanks to mindfulness (not the jhāna), according to the uddhambhāgiya sutta (AN 9.70).
To complete the picture, funnily, part of the debate might come from interpreting the jhāna as (mental) ‘concentration’… which is a traditional, orthodox interpretation in the Theravāda school, since Buddhaghosa's commentaries, but might nonetheless be debated!
Some recent research (both experiential by senior meditators, and exegetical) suggests interpreting the jhāna as an integrated practice leading to “non-reactive and lucid awareness”, an awareness open to phenomena, not shying away from them3.
In such a case, mindfulness might help entering the higher jhāna, thanks to the induced disenchantement hence the lower reactivity, in line with the classic order of the Eightfold Path… However, mindfulness might also be practiced within a jhanic state, to gain insights –and, in fact, different jhanic states might be appropriate for the relevant insights in different phenomena!
As a result, e.g. bhikkhu Sujato often uses ‘immersion’ rather than ‘concentration’ in translations, e.g. for the samādhi sutta (AN 5.27):
Mendicants, develop limitless immersion, alert and mindful.
“Immersion in reality as it is”, or “immersion into the heart of experience” does certainly not resonate the same as “concentration in a pure, mental, blissful state”. ‘Immersion’ alone, of course, maintains an ambiguity, as it keeps open the possibility for going deep inside, rather than deep into the experience. But, ultimately, in Buddhism, ‘inside’ is delusional… Indifference is not equanimity, and the ideal of Buddhism doesn't lie in becoming an indifferent stone statue!
By now, it's ‘mindfulness’ which becomes concentrated (on some observed phenomenon), while ‘immersion’ is open… and this seems reasonable, given that e.g. the first formless sphere is called “infinite space”, the second “infinite consciousness”! It is difficult to reconcile infinite with narrow-pointed4.
As a result, maybe the reader so annoyed with the change from “… 7. right mindfulness, 8. right concentration” from the Eightfold path, to “right concentration then right mindfulness” should have insisted on replacing ‘concentration’ with ‘immersion’… rather than insisting on sticking to a preconceived order, or some spoke constituting the supposed culmination of the Path.
Ultimately, I don't believe in quoting sutta to pretend there's “only one way” to Awaken.
The Buddha taught differently to different people, he was famous for that, and it's logical that various antidotes would be given to free people from various hindrances…
The Canon is full of apparent contradictions because of that: if you take various sutta literally, they're incoherent, but if you consider the audience, then you realize the whole point is merely to free this particular audience from a particular delusion.
The insistence in some sutta on this-or-that —be it jhāna / some order between practices / some precepts to follow (all of them, no order) / some qualities (pāramī) to develop (any of them, no order)— is no different: each time, it's an expedient means for the situation and audience at hand, not the magic pill, not the one answer!
Then, any « the Noble Eightfold Path is quite specifically the path of … » makes no sense; it merely indicates that one clings (in the name of ‘clarity’?) to some supposed certainty about some recipe to achieve Liberation, as a way to reassure oneself. Yet, even the Eightfold Path doesn't provide a formal assurance on Nibbāna!