Moggallaana, one of the two most powerful of the Buddha's followers, and the one whose strong point was magic power, describes his first attempts to master the the level of meditation practice called the First Jhaana.
Read the Sutta
The problem with Woodward's translation/conception of jhaana is his use of the term 'trance'. The jhaanas, at a certain point definately resemble or might as well be called trances, but the implication of the word distorts the reality.
What these states are is wide-awake, fully conscious awareness of higher than ordinary states of reality.
The word 'jhaana' is the root of our word 'knowing' and it would be best to emphasize that aspect of jhaana over the fact that from the outside the individual highly concentrated in jhaana seems to be in a trance state.
In later translations he uses the term 'musing' which is somewhat closer to what is happening.
I have pointed out in notes in and through my translation where I believe commentarial explanations have distorted the understanding of the first jhaana.
The importance of this sutta is that it is being related by a master of the subject about the very beginning of his practice where he is, in theory at least, no more knowledgable about the subject than any beginner then or now.
That this is an instruction for very beginners is the whole point of this sutta. So I think it is not unreasonable to state that the teaching should be taken at face value.
In addition, supporting the idea that this is an instruction that if followed brings the promised result (the getting a grip on the first jhaana) the Buddha's private instruction to Moggallaana is also brought to bear on the subject.
What is needed to be understood about the subject is said, no more, no less.
Because there is doubt surrounding the idea that the jhaanas are necessary for full practice of Gotama's system, and where it is also clear that, push come to shove, the first jhaana will do, it is essential that any serious practitioner come to grips with what is reqired for this attainment.
Here is the rulebook. There is the Pali and three translations. Dig in!
Speaking of which, there are those out there that have gone out on a limb and dug themselves into a pit and have jumped from the frying pan into the fire and cut off their noses to spite their faces by stating in no undertain terms that it is impossible, and ridiculing the idea, that there is thinking in the first jhaana.
Take a look at the Pali.
Just before Moggallaana recalls the formula for the first jhaaana,
- before he has entered the first jhaana, -
in which is found the terms 'sa-vitakka' and 'sa-vicaara'
(my 'with thinking, with pondering',
Woodward's 'accompanied by thought directed and sustained',
Bhk. Bodhi's 'accompanied by thought and examination')
he states that he has been 'parivitakka'-ing about the meaning of the term 'The First Knowing'.
Parivitakka: 'Thinking about.'
If these terms meant something other than the ordinary understanding of them, to avoid confusion here some distinction would need to be made concering their use in the one case and their use in the other.
But in stead we have what is actually an emphasis on the idea that these terms are to be understood in the ordinary way by the use of the prefix: 'sa-', 'with.'
The jhaanas are a progression of detachments.
"The attaining of one state by the letting go of another." (Saariputta).
One begins by letting go of the rough worldly-bound diversions known as the Nivaranas.
That does not include all thinking.
We need some stepping stone to the point of even greater detachment wherein there is no thinking (the second knowing): a place where we are able to clearly think and ponder over the Dhamma.
That is the first knowing.
This is something the layman is frequently described as being able to attain without a great deal of labor. You can do it! Do not listen to those who say it cannot be done!
SN 4.40 (the entire Samyutta)