Dhyana (Trance State)

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Dhyana (Pāli, jhāna) is a trance state experienced through particular meditative practices. According to traditional Buddhist thought, there are eight trance states. These are divided into two categories: The first four dhyānas are part of the realm of form, and the final four are part of the formless realm. The division between the form and formless dhyānas is not absolute; the higher formless dhyanas (trance states five through eight) are themselves considered a division of the fourth dhyāna belonging to the realm of form. Thus, the eight dhyanas form a continuous hierarchical structure.

The practice of mental concentration (śamatha; Pāli, samatha) is the condition for the meditative experience of these trance states. As mental concentration increases, the practitioner gains entry to increasingly higher levels of absorption. This progression is a process of stilling or calming mental states and achieving the joy of tranquility and peace. In the fourth dhyāna all sensations are extinguished, resulting in a state of equanimity. The attainment of the fourth dhyāna gives access to the four formless dhyānas, the states of infinite space, infinite consciousness, nothingness, and neither-perception-nor-nonperception. The fourth dhyāna, characterized by equanimity and one-pointedness, also gives rise to a set of supernatural powers, including the power to know one's former lifetimes.

The experience of trance states is not viewed as an end in itself, but rather a means to the final goal of nirvĀṆa. The levels of dhyāna are categorized as conditioned and impermanent and thus ultimately unsatisfactory. The experience of absorptions are temporary; they last only for as long as the mind remains concentrated. When concentration ends, the unwhole-some qualities of the mind return and the blissful feelings experienced in the first four dhyānas cease. For these reasons, the experience of trance states is to be joined to the cultivation of prajÑĀ (wisdom; Pāli, pañña). The mental transformation accomplished through the experience of the dhyānas prepares the mind for training in wisdom and the specific practices of the cultivation of insight, vipaśyanā (Pāli, vipassanā). Concentration can also be pursued together with insight as each absorption is experienced and then transcended when it is analyzed as impermanent.

There is a parallel between dhyāna as interiorized meditative states and as cosmological heavenly realms. The first four dhyānas correspond to the seventeen heavens of the realm of form, resting above the lower heavens of the realms of desire. The four higher dhyānas correspond to the four levels of the formless heavens, the uppermost realm of the cosmos. Dhyānas can therefore be experienced for temporary periods through meditative concentration or for longer durations through rebirth into one of the form or formless heavenly realms.

Dhyāna is also defined in relation to a ninth realm higher than either the meditative or cosmological levels of absorptions. This state of the cessation of perception and sensation is attained by those who join perfected concentration and insight.

See also:Cosmology; Meditation; Psychology; Vipassanā(Sanskrit, Vipaśyanā)


Buddhaghosa, Bhadantācariya. The Path of Purification, tr. Bhikkhu Nanamoli. Berkeley, CA: Shambhala, 1976.

Nyanaponika, Thera. The Heart of Buddhist Meditation. New York: Samuel Weiser, 1975.

Payutto, Phra Prayudh. Buddhadhamma: Natural Laws and Values for Life, tr. Grant A. Olson. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.

Karen Derris