Is Jhana the emptiness of Anatta?

Q: Is jhana the emptiness of anatta?

A: [Jitindriya] Not necessarily… though one can speak about such things in different ways. The different levels of jhana are considered ’empty of what’s not there, but not empty of what is there’… So in this case, recognising the absence of certain things is seeing the emptiness of such…. but as to what remains present, this is known as present… (see Culasunnata sutta in Majjhima Nikaya – MN121 ). So even with the very finest levels of jhana, it is considered that the fixed perception of those states are a present perception… They are states which are still conditioned/produced, brought about by directed intention and attention. And one who experiences jhana does not necessarily have the insight into or understand anatta. The realisation of anatta is in seeing that all conditions (and conditioned things) are impermanent and unstable, and therefore empty of a substantial unchanging self-nature, i.e. empty of ‘I-ness’, ‘my-ness’, and ‘me-ness’ as such, (or empty of an unchanging ‘owner’ or ‘controller’). When this realisation dawns, and is fully comprehended with regard to all conditions, one may dwell in the supreme ’emptiness’, which is empty of ignorance and its stressful outflows!

Hope that helps clarify a bit rather than confound the issue. In the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, emptiness may be spoken of in different ways, from different perspectives and in its different aspects, but it boils down to the same thing (at least in my view!)

Questioner’s response:

…Yes, this is more clear now, I think. I spend lots of time in jhanas but my insight into anatta is still very immature. Even when it gets very quiet in my head it still feels like “my” no-mind. And when I can no longer perceive the body, it’s still “I” that’s not perceiving it. So while the four jhanas are bliss and equanimity, anatta must be something like Nirvana or non-dual awareness.

Our further response:

‘Anatta’ is not a something or a state of mind per se, it is a characteristic of all conditioned existence, of all that is of the nature to arise and cease. The lead up to the insight into anatta is often through recognising the characteristic of ‘anicca’ – the impermanence or transience of every thing, of all conditioned phenomena… Just in noticing the changeability of all your experiences, all your mind states (including jhanas), all your thoughts, perceptions, sensations; recognise how none of your sense experience ever stays the same, it is all in a flow of change and morphability… and it is so all by itself, in its own nature, whether there is an ‘I’ or not! In fact, you can notice how the feeling and thought of ‘I’ comes and goes too… its not always present… notice it is just another thought or notion that arises and ceases. Such noticing can help clarify the nature of these characteristics of existence and clear up any misunderstanding…