Several suttas, for instance about the Buddha’s childhood experience, never mention specific objects for the first four jhanas, only jhana factors.
This question came up in the Online 10-day Retreat Nov 3, 2020, guided by Delson Armstrong. Day 3 was part of a daily 30 -minute discussion on the suttas, the Dhamma talk and reflections.
Slightly edited to improve readability
From what I understand, the traditional story is that the Buddha reminisced about the time when he was a boy. He was sitting under the rose-apple tree. He took that as an object, or at least as a way to get into an uplifted state.
It’s quite interesting, there are a lot of different ways that the meditation process is described in different suttas.
There is a sutta that is called the Bhikkhunis Residence, in the Anguttara Nikaya. In it, Ananda goes to visit the nuns and he asks them about their practice. Ananda then comes back and talks to the Buddha, and the Buddha says; yes, there is a way of doing it where there are the Four Resting Places of Awareness, or the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. You are aware of body as body, mind as mind, sensations as sensations and mental contents as mental contents. And as you are aware of this, and you start to get distracted, you bring in an uplifting object. This is what is known as Development by Application, according to the Buddha.
In that sutta he says to bring up a wholesome object, an uplifting object. Once you bring up the uplifting object, you let go of anything related to it, meaning you let go of the image, the thought, the examination and the verbalization that led to that uplifting object. And you stay with the awareness of that uplifting object. This is known as Development by Application.
And then there is development without application, or the undirected meditation. In this one, it’s just resting mind’s awareness on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. And then you can actually take the factors of the jhana as your object. Meaning, you can go through each jhana – this happens later, when you make the determinations, when you’re quite developed in your practice of the jhanas. You can actually take the factors of the first jhana and be able to be in the first jhana, just by intending it. Making your object, so to speak, the factors of the first jhana. Likewise, with the second, the third, the fourth jhana, and then the higher dimensions of Infinite Space, Infinite Consciousness, Nothingness, Neither-perception-nor-non-perception.
As far as I know, and as little as I know about the suttas, I don’t think the Buddha specifically mentioned anything related to taking an object for the jhanas. However, there’s one specific sutta, in fact, it is one of the suttas that is in the curriculum for this retreat*. I cannot tell you by memory exactly what the name of the sutta is, but it is related to Metta, and in that, the Buddha is talking about the different jhanas. He is talking about how each of the Brahma Viharas is tied to each of the higher dimensions of Infinite Space, Infinite Consciousness, Nothingness and Neither-perception-nor-non-perception. He talks about Loving-kindness with the first four jhanas, and then he talks about Compassion with Infinite Space, Empathetic Joy with Infinite Consciousness and Equanimity with Nothingness. This is also in relation to the Seven Factors of Awakening.
As far as the object of meditation is concerned, all you need to know is; once you have your object of meditation, whatever it is, it’s important to be with it, to stay unified around it, so that you can continue to be in that jhana. That’s a way for the mind to be tied with the present moment. Aware of what is happening in the present moment, while allowing the mind to start to develop – through that awareness – the different factors of the jhana, and then experience it one by one as they arise.
[Person asking the question]
Thank you. You said, some object to get a child – I couldn’t hear properly?
I was saying that the traditional story is – and I may be mistaken – that the Buddha pondered back to when he was a child, sitting under the rose-apple tree. And he was thinking about how happy he was in that state. This was at a time when his father was visiting some place, and he sat at the foot of the tree. He remembered how easy his mind was, while he was meditating, and he then contemplated; what if I were to do that again?
This was on the night before his Enlightenment, and he used that same process to get into this jhana with that ease of mind.
*Delson probably refers to the Samyutta Nikaya, 46.54 Accompanied by Loving-kindness, which is part of the materials offered for Day 3.