The term “meditative absorption” refers to [a state in which the mind]
meditates correctly on an object and recollection holds fast [to an
The sutras describe each of the four meditative absorptions with a formulaic statement. Asanga glosses each expression that appears in these statements in his Listeners’ Level. The canonical description of the first meditative absorption is as follows:
Separated from the objects of desire, separated from evil and
nonvirtuous qualities, [the practitioner] achieves and then remains
in the first meditative absorption, which is characterized by the joy
and ease that are born of separation and is accompanied by
deliberation and reflection.
Commentarial literature defines the meditative absorptions in terms of their main components or limbs. The first meditative absorption consists of these five limbs: (1) deliberation, (2) reflection, (3) joy, (4) ease, and (5) one-pointedness of mind. Of these, deliberation and reflection are corrective limbs, in that they enable the practitioner to abandon the faults of the desire realm, including desire for sensory pleasures, malice, harmfulness, and [nonvirtuous] deliberative thoughts. Joy and pleasure are beneficial limbs, because the practitioner experiences the joy and ease that arise through having attained separation from the coarseness of the desire realm. One-pointedness of mind is the supporting limb in that the power of concentration enables the other limbs to take effect.
Joy is a pleasant mental feeling also described as mental well-being or happiness of mind. There is some disagreement in the commentarial literature regarding the limb called “ease.” Je Tsongkapa explains that, according to the philosophical tradition associated with Asanga’s Compendium of Higher Learning, joy and ease refer to separate elements of one and the same pleasant feeling that accompanies the primary mind consciousness. It is called “joy” in that it is a mental feeling and “ease” in that it also benefits the sense faculties and the coarse physical body in which those faculties reside. However, The Treasury of Higher Learning states that, according to Vaibhasika School, the “ease” of both the first and second meditative absorptions does not refer to a feeling at all, but rather to the mental factor called “agility.” Following the first interpretation, the joy and ease of the first meditative absorption represent feelings that are related to departure in that they are associated with a state of separation from the unhappiness of the desire realm.
—adapted from The Inner Science of Buddhist Practice