Jhana: The Buddhist Search For Focused Equanimity.

The Buddha Clearly Distinguished Between ‘Emptiness’ (Sunnata) and ‘Nothingness’ (Akincanna)!

The Buddha’s teaching, in its early form advocates a certain withdrawal of the mind from its habitual investment in the structures of the world around it.  This withdrawal of mind attachment from its intimate entwining with external objects is often (symbolically) precipitated by a withdrawal of the physical body from participation in the normal round of everyday existence.  This physical withdrawal can be potentially ‘complete’, as in that of a male or female monastic, or ‘partial’ as in that of the lay practitioner.  Whatever the situation of the beginning point in practice, it is clear that the Buddha is of the opinion that a mind engulfed by worldly images and conventions, is a mind suffering bondage through a delusional enslavement.  The wilful withdrawing of attention from worldly entanglements is of course the essence of the meditative technique.  The attention of the mind itself is literally disengaged from one highly attractive object and instead placed firmly upon its own essence and in the process is not permitted to wonder away from its new area of focus.  The mind, in and of itself, is an ‘objectiveless’ object, and an intense focus upon it, serving as an antithesis to the attachment associated with physical matter.  The mind’s unquestioned investment in the attachment to, (and the viewing of), external structures being perceived as being both independently ‘real’ and ‘permanent’ entities is the reason why humanity suffers.  This investment contains within in it the arbitrary fragmentation of the human mind into an ‘object’, ‘subject’ dichotomy.  That is to say that the natural capacity of the ‘totality’ of mind is shattered by an investment in external entities that do not actually exist in the state that they are mistakenly perceived to be.  This misrepresentation is a form of implicit addiction that simultaneously causes both attachments to the delusion, as well as suffering from the attachment itself.  The addiction – or ‘craving’ (Pali: ‘tanha’) – is so powerful that irrespective of the pain it undoubtedly causes, the situation as it exists can not be changed.  The everyday nature of the state of delusion is locked-in permanently to a false dichotomy that continuously interprets the world incorrectly and in so doing lays the foundation for unwholesome karmic results that repeat without end.  Indeed, this continuous cycle the Buddha named ‘samsara’, and his teachings advocate the permanent ‘breaking’ of the chain of delusion, so that the extinction of delusion is realised through the state of nirvana, or ‘cessation’ of greed, hatred and delusion, as well the craving they inspire.  The chain of addiction continues without end because of habitual attachment to externals.  In this state it is the condition that is suffering itself, that is greatly desired despite the pain such a condition manifests and inspires throughout the life experiences of the individual so addicted.  This deluded state necessarily denies its true definition, and instead maintains a tragic fiction that runs through eons of existence, serving up life after life with unending and multitudinous fabrications that layer one mythological moment upon the next, accruing karmic without end and producing the conditions for the fruit of that karma (vipaka), to ripen.

The physical material of the universal itself is not necessarily morally corrupt as it exists, but rather is made so by a mind projecting a distorted meaning onto, and into it.  However, as the karmic fruits of an individual actually ‘pull’ a physical world into place, even morally inert matter is designed, through circumstance, to create experiences relevant to the karmic root actions themselves.  Early Buddhism envisages 31 such states of existence that are only transcended through the experience of enlightenment at the point of the death of the last karmically inspired physical existence.  Until that time, the mind appears to ‘burn’ with sensation and obsessive thought patterns that inspire actions that inevitably lead to further effects.  This mechanism that sees the mind fabric intimately entwined with the physical world, has to be prevent from functioning in an unquestioned manner.  The power of habit moves in one perpetuating direction, as like a piece of metal drawn to a strong magnet.  Habitual tendencies appear ‘normal’ because they are familiar.  Delusion is a comfortable state that ‘hurts’ those residing within it.  The pain of delusion is never associated with the ‘delusion’ itself.  The human will (cetana) is the Buddha’s key to suffering and its over-coming.  A misplaced will creates and encourages suffering, whilst a directed will, focused correctly and used in the right way, breaks the cycle and eventually allows the mind to be free whilst existing in a physical body that inhabits a material world.  The will withdraws an inappropriate attention from a misconceived external object, and instead re-establishes attention in the right manner, conducive to Dharmic training.  The attention is wilfully wrestled away from the habit of attachment to externals, which have been chased after for time without end, and turned inward toward the pristine nature of the mind itself which is free of pollution.  This re-direction away from delusion toward enlightenment allows for the over-coming of greed, hatred and delusion and the uprooting of craving.  External phenomena act as perpetuators of mental habit formed within the mind itself.  The mind has latched on to inert matter and in so doing has projected an animating delusion into it.  Such is the extent of this situation that the external world becomes ‘painful’ to experience.  At no time however, is the pain experienced originating any where other than from within the mind.  Concepts such as ‘mind’ and ‘matter’, although useful in explaining methods and degrees of understanding and attainment must not be viewed as a dichotomy real in itself.  The mind and world of matter are not two separate entities despite the conventional habit of presentation that suggests they are.  Part of the delusionary, painful experience of living in a physical world is that it appears to exist in a separate nature from the senses that perceive it.  This dualism of ‘this’ verses ‘that’ allows the mind to follow one trait after another with no control whatsoever.  Ideas and emotions are often difficult to view apart from the physical externals that they are associated with, as if no space exists between the two.  The physical environment flows with greed, hatred and delusion and confirms the required attachment through craving.  The Buddha perceives this state as a duality that is unaware of itself.  The deluded human mind is projecting a fictitious world onto its own fabric, and due to its lack of insight is unable to see exactly what it is that it is doing to itself.  This mind generated environment is the cycle of samsara defined.  Such is the entanglement and confusion the mind must disentangle itself from its own creation of an external world, before it can become clear about its own essence.  The attention must be withdrawn from the periphery of the delusion and placed firmly back on the essence of the mind itself.  This allows the essence to be perceived whilst withdrawing the sustaining attention away from the delusion that such a directed attention serves to maintain.

The deluded state that is the norm for humanity appears to be unbreakable in and of itself.  Of course, the Buddha, through the example of ‘right effort’ did indeed break the cycle that is hard to break.  Furthermore, through his long career of teaching (some 50 years), he taught an intricate explanation of what delusion is and how the mind can be made free of it.  Such is the scope of ordinary delusion, and so broad the questions it generated from seekers after enlightenment, that the Buddha provided a comprehensive body of instruction that minutely describes how a practitioner should train from a particular deluded view, to that of the cessation of delusion itself.  This wisdom is the product of ‘jhana’, or meditation.  This state of equanimous knowing is not ordinary intellection, but is considered to be an understanding of such a high degree that it lacks a suitable description.  Jhanic knowledge can be sought (and attained) by the deluded mind, but its fruits can only be truly understood by the enlightened mind itself.  It may be defined as a type of developed intellection that lacks the boundaries associated with the accumulation of ordinary knowledge, which invariably involves the use of the entire mind rather than just a small conscious part.  It is a knowing free of the tyranny and oppression of both inwardly and outwardly generated false dichotomies, and which no longer generates greed, hatred and delusion.  Such is the power of this type of supreme knowing that it is often equated with the mind itself, as such knowledge is only acquired through the training of the mind itself – the mind is the doorway to ‘jhana’, but for this doorway to be opened it was the tradition of ancient India for the spiritual ascetic o enter the ‘homeless’ state of life.  This action effectively disinvested the individual of family, caste, status and wealth, allowing for a wandering existence whereby the needs of the physical body were provided for through act of begging, or which were acquired from nature.  Generally speaking, these virtually naked spiritual seekers after truth were held in high esteem by the institutions of the society they had left.  The disentanglement from the institutions and traditions of this society was respected by the inhabitants themselves, constituting what might be interpreted as a community support for a yogic endeavour that was understood as representing the spiritual health of the society itself.  In this society it was not frowned upon to leave its institutions and enter the homeless state, as Gautama Buddha did, along with thousands of others.  This systemic facility of spiritual escape acknowledges the validity of the withdrawing of the mind’s recognition from external objects and in so doing, the removal of the power these institutions hold over the individual.  The withdrawal of the mind from externals allows for the mind to become the sole object of its own attention.  This means that the corresponding thought constructs that are usually caught up in the external world are isolated in the mind’s awareness and as the Buddha teaches non-attachment, the applied Buddhist method at this point becomes an exercise in non-identification with ‘thought’ itself.  The thinking mechanism, detached from its usual involvement with externals, is further disempowered by the objectification of it through the mind’s innate awareness capability.  This awareness is disentangled from habitual thought constructs so that the constructs themselves can be clearly perceived in their true nature.  The thought constructs, in this situation, have nowhere to go, and have had their empowering roots from the external environment and the inner mind thoroughly removed.  As a consequence, they can be clearly observed in their disembodied nakedness, and the result of this process develops the special kind of insight knowledge associated with jhana, called ‘wisdom’.  When the true nature of deluded thought constructs is clearly scene, the constructs themselves wither away and the mind’s hitherto obscured pristine essence comes into view.

The ‘distancing’ of the mind from external objects does not necessarily require the leaving of society itself.  The Buddha says, on a number of occasions that an aspirant can practice in the wilderness, or find a quiet room to meditate within.  Indeed, the early teachings talk of both male and female lay disciples of the Buddha attaining to enlightenment during the Buddha’s lifetime.  What seems to be important is that a symbolic break with habit is exhibited through a definite and ‘wilful’ choice of lifestyle designed to bring an end to suffering in the world.  Leaving society to live in the wilderness is one such model, as is the lay-person choosing not to be so mentally involved in the institutions and conventions of the world around.  The is teaching that Jhanic development can only occur if a certain space in the mind is initially developed.  This space allows for an over-view of the mind itself and the perpetual habits it produces.  Whatever the eventual outer circumstances of the spiritual seeker of the Buddha’s path, the physical body must be controlled through behaviour modification and the mind reigned in.  Although the Buddha speaks about different postures for meditation it is clear that many adopted the seated posture as a means to control the body through a lack of movement.  More than this however, but the posture itself is regulated with a precision typical of yogic thinking.  Once the body is still, the mind can be observed with out suffering disturbance from external stimuli.  In this way concentration can be developed that eventually pushes through the mental haze and non-comprehension.  The many methods of meditation seek to break the ridge-pole of ignorance and enter the Jhanic states of attainment.

The Pali term ‘jhana’ (झान) denotes two precise characteristics of the use of the mind.  These two characteristics are the state of ‘thinking’, and the act of ‘meditation’.  Jhana, as a distinct concept, refers to mind-centric activities and the fruits of such activities.  Through the act of thinking, understanding is acquired (ordinary knowledge), but through the practice of meditation, superior knowledge is realised.  For meditational purposes, jhana refers to a mind focused upon the observation of its own function and of its own essence.  Pronounced ‘dhyana’ in Sanskrit, this term has entered the Chinese language as ‘Ch’an’ (禅), which is itself a distinct Mahayana School that advocates the ‘use of mind, to over-come mind’.  Through the use of this intense concentrative method, the taints of the mind are dissolved or burnt-up.  From the Buddhist use of this term it is clear that it refers to a method of mind development, with all its stages, potential pitfalls and experiences, as well as the attainments of that method, as well as never losing sight of the fact that it is the mind itself, that through the practice of the appropriate technique, uproots its own deluded content – literally a case of mind over-coming mind.  Higher knowledge, in this sense, is the product of an ever deepening understanding of the fabric of the mind itself in relation to the universe it inhabits.  Therefore, as well as its general definition as used in Buddhism, jhana has also been developed as a means to explain various states of meditational attainment within early Buddhism, and went on (through its Mahayana development) to become considered synonymous with ‘mind’ itself, and the state of enlightenment a trained mind can achieve.  The chosen method of meditation focuses the mind upon a specific object.  Within early Buddhism there are forty variants of this kind of meditation, from focusing upon the breath, to an emphasis upon taints within the mind, or the developing of positive states such a loving kindness and compassion, etc.  The mind focuses upon an object.  This simple act of concentration (samatha) brings the mind’s patterns of thoughts and feelings under control.  This, in-turn, builds up concentrative power in the mind and allows for the attainment of the appropriate fruits relative to the object contemplated.  Thus the object is fully conquered and a deeper understanding or insight (vipassana) of the mind itself is acquired.  This process is not merely an act of thought reform or the replacing of one kind of thought with another – although in the early stages of mind development, good thoughts are karmically preferable to bad thoughts – but rather seeks to uproot the causes that lead to the formation of deluded thought formations (both good and bad).  The Buddha taught that an ordinary life is conditioned by karma, and that even if the circumstances of that life are considered good and positive, nevertheless, these circumstance are a product of delusion and will eventually pass, turning into their opposite manifestations.  An apparently happy or sad external existence has exactly the same underlying delusional base of greed, hatred and delusion, as taught by the Buddha.  To end this conditioned suffering, the practice of meditation (jhana) is used to free the mind of its habitual creation of ‘defilements’ (asrava), so that greed, hatred and delusion remain unconditioned and therefore do not arise.  This non-arising of conditioning defilements is the point and purpose of all Buddhist meditational methods.  Along this path of development many mental states will arise and pass away as the training progresses, and definite ‘fruits’ related to stages of jhanic training are recorded in the early Buddhist teachings.  There are four ‘rupa’ and four ‘arupa’ stages of jhanic attainment, making eight in all.  The meditator progresses from the first to the eight in order, fully understanding each stage as it manifests and passes away into the next stage.  Deluded aspects of mind are abandoned and enlightened attributes attained.  However, the practitioner does not become attached to any particular spiritual attainment or state, but moves on unconcerned toward an ever deepening tranquil and profound understanding.

The eight jhanic states are separated into two groups of four so-called ‘absorptions’.  The first group is collectively termed ‘rupavacara jhana’ (i.e. ‘of the realm of form’) and can be understood as ‘formal’ acquisitions of meditative states.   That is to say that the Pali term ‘rupa’ literally translates as ‘matter’ and relates to physical existence in a material world.  These four progressive levels of meditation lead the practitioner beyond attachments to the physical world (of gross matter), and in so doing a finer appreciation of matter and its characteristics is attained.  Therefore, ‘rupa’ is also often translated as ‘fine-material’, the emphasis being upon the development away from the ignorant state.  The second group of four absorptions is called ‘arupavacara jhana’ (i.e. ‘of the realm of non-form’) .  Arupa translates from the Pali as ‘formless’, and refers to spiritual attributes that are considered to be beyond the limitations of the physical world, the attachments associated with it, and the suffering produced through this deluded association.  Arupa means ‘non-form’ and suggests a deepening of awareness which is the consequence of the successful application of the first four (rupa) jhanas.  The correct contemplation of ‘form’, leads invariably to the development of the correct contemplation of ‘non-form’, and in this meditation method, each jhana must be developed separately, one at a time.  These ‘non-form’ jhanas create the situation for the attainment of state described as being ‘neither perception nor non-perception’.  Each jhana must be entered, fully achieved, understood and the spiritual fruits gained, before leaving the developed state and thoroughly contemplating its experience.  Every jhana must be developed in this way, with a definite separation between the jhanic stages themselves.  With the complete understanding of each jhanic stage, together with its integration as an experience into the ordinary mind, the practitioner moves steadily onward, one clear stage at a time.  This tradition allows for the acquired attributes to be clearly seen and understood.  There is no sense of rushing.  The Buddha’s teaching explains precisely what should be done, how it should be done and why it should be done in the way suggested.  The following eight jhanic states are described one at a time in the traditional sequence.

1st Rupavacara Jhana.

The practitioner enters the wilderness or a quiet room, thus disentangling the mind and body from attachment to the physical world.  Specifically, this is an exercise in non-attachment to worldly inspired habits of thought and behaviour.  With the meditation posture adopted, the meditator focuses the mind upon the meditation method – such as concentrating upon the breath.  Such an action symbolises a clean break with the ordinary world of painful delusion.  This means that the five hindrances – sense desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, agitation and worry – are abandoned and the four attributes attained – reasoning, reflection, happiness and bliss.  The mind still thinks, but is under the control of the practitioner.  The concentration required is not yet developed to the level of ‘one-pointedness’, but the success of detaching from the world (and its associated habits) brings about a deep sense of happiness and bliss that permeates every pore of the body and every part of the mind.  This is the first jhanic absorption which must be fully mastered before moving onto the next.  When emerging from this state, the practitioner realises that reasoning and reflection obscure the establishment of true concentration, and strives, through further practice, to abandon them

2nd Rupavacara Jhana.

With the successful attainment of the first jhanic state, the practitioner realises that the reasoning and reflection in the mind is a hindrance to a deeper penetration into the mind essence.  Whereas the first jhanic state is born of seclusion, the second jhanic state is born of concentration.  Through further refinement of the meditation method, both reasoning and reflection are abandoned as being unprofitable on the spiritual path of Dharma, during the act of meditation.  This means that the mind is ‘stilled’ from discursive activity, and that the states of internal confidence, singleness of mind, happiness and bliss are manifest.  This is the second jhanic absorption which must be fully realised before moving onto the next.  When emerging from this state, the practitioner realises that happiness obscures further development due to its all pervading and intoxicating nature.  The practitioner, through further training resolves to abandon happiness and establish only bliss and the unification of the mind.

3rd Rupavacara Jhana.

With the successful attainment of the second jhanic state, the practitioner realises that happiness in the mind is a hindrance to a deeper penetration into the mind essence.  Through further refinement of the meditation method, happiness is abandoned as being unprofitable on the spiritual path of Dharma, during the act of meditation.  With happiness uprooted, bliss permeates the body and mind.  The mind is united through concentration and equanimity (upekkha) is established.  This is the third jhanic absorption which must be fully realised before moving onto the next.  When emerging from this state, the practitioner realises that bliss is a hindrance to the establishment of a fully quieted mind absorbed in equanimity.  Within this stage it becomes clear that whatever is actually abandoned, be it reasoning, reflection, happiness or bliss, the opposite is also abandoned.   No matter how apparently ‘good’ or ‘pleasurable’ an experience might appear, it contains within it, the essence of suffering through its opposite – non-reasoning, non-reflection, non-happiness and non-bliss.  One extreme is not abandoned in favour of the other, but both extremes are thoroughly uprooted.  This uprooting transcends duality, (i.e. a mind divided in itself), and allows for the development of one-pointed concentration (Samadhi).  The practitioner, through further training resolves to abandon bliss and all bodily sensations associated with it, so that equanimity and one-pointed concentration can be established.

4th Rupavacara Jhana.

With the successful attainment of the third jhanic state, the practitioner realises that bliss in the mind is a hindrance to a deeper penetration into the mind essence.  Through further refinement of the meditation method, bliss is abandoned as being unprofitable on the spiritual path of Dharma, during the act of meditation.  Through the (previous) abandoning of pain and pleasure, joy and grief, and now bliss, the practitioner enters the fourth jhanic state.  This state is beyond pain and pleasure and has the purity of mind established by equanimity.  This is the last of the realm of form jhanas.  Strong concentration and a deep equanimity have been thoroughly established by the disentanglement of the mind and body from the gross physical world, and the development of the fine material jhanic states.  The fourth jhanic state prepares the mind for the movement into the very rarefied states associated with the four arupavacara jhanas.

Before examining the four arupavacara jhanas, it is interesting to note that the Buddhist sutras, (as the teachings of the Buddha himself) always clearly explain this scheme of meditation as involving eight distinct levels separated into two groups of four.  However, the Venerable Walpola Rahula, in his book entitled ‘Zen & The Taming of the Bull – Towards a Definition of Buddhist Thought’ (pages 101-109), explains that although the sutras always explain the rupavacara jhanas as containing four clear levels of attainment, the Theravada Abbidhamma actually lists ‘five’ jhanic states in the rupavacara.  The reason for this is that ‘one-pointed’ concentration – that is ‘developed concentration’ is assumed to be already existent within the first jhanic stage.  Rahula points out that as reasoning and reflection exist in the first jhanic stage (i.e. ‘moving of the mind’), developed one-pointed concentration can not be present.  Furthermore, Rahula conveys that the Mahayana Abbidhamma (as opposed to the Theravada Abbidhamma) is in accordance with the early Buddhist sutras, and counts only four jhanic stages.  This is probably a matter of organisation rather than an error in interpretation, after-all, although strictly speaking, one-pointed concentration can not pre-exist the conditions that lead to its attainment (Rahula’s interesting point), it is also true that a ‘concentration’ of some kind is implicit in the first jhanic stage, as a means of ‘will’ (cetana), whereby the entire meditative process actually depends upon its directional presence.  It may as yet, not be ‘one-pointed’ in the first stage, but the conditions for its development (in the second stage) are definitely present, and it may be the acknowledgement of this fact that is expressed in the Theravada Abbidhamma.  That is that one stage contains the essence of the next stage within it, with all the stages over-lapping to a certain extent.  Each stage is dependent upon the next for its development.  However, when the sutras are consulted it is clear that there are only ‘four’ jhanic stages in the rupavacara jhanas, and that the Buddha, motivated by compassion and wisdom, clearly explained each stage as if it were different and distinct from all other stages, and then explained precisely how each stage relates to the next, giving the order of the stages themselves and how the developmental attributes are to be correctly attained (i.e. ‘method’) throughout.  The Abbidhamma, by comparison, is a (very interesting) collection of theoretical commentaries developed long after the Buddha’s physical passing, by the monastic community.  The Venerable Rahula – himself an eminent (Sri Lankan) Buddhist monk, and respected academic, shows that the Abbidhamma, as a man-made body of work is not beyond scrutiny and criticism.  In this instance, the Abbidhamma commentary of the Theravada school deviates from the sutras proper, not only by suggesting that one-pointed concentration is present in the first jhana, but by also asserting that the second jhana is entered through the abandonment of only ‘reasoning’ (vitakka) whilst retaining ‘reflection’ (vicara).  The sutra teachings clearly convey that the second jhana is entered through the abandonment of both ‘reason’ and ‘reflection’, and that through such abandoning, one-pointed concentration is achieved.  The Theravada Abbidhamma schema is so designed that it needs five stages instead of four, to achieve the state of equanimity and is presented as:

Abbidhamma (Theravada) Tradition.

1st Jhanareasoningreflectionjoyhappinessone-pointed concentration
2nd Jhana reflectionjoyhappinessone-pointed concentration
3rd Jhana  joyhappinessone-pointed concentration
4th Jhana   happinessone-pointed concentration
5th Jhana   equanimityone-pointed concentration

This schema can be compared with the sutra presentation of the same teaching:

Pali Canon Sutra Tradition.

1st Jhanareasoningreflectionjoyhappinessaccess (brief) concentration
2nd Jhana  joyhappinessone-pointed concentration
3rd Jhana   happinessone-pointed concentration
4th Jhana   equanimityone-pointed concentration

The sutra teaching allows only for ‘access concentration’ to be present within the first jhana state, as opposed to the presence of full and developed one-pointed concentration as in the Abbidhamma tradition.  The sutra tradition abandons reasoning and reflection within the second jhana state, as opposed to the abandoning of just reasoning in the Abbidhamma tradition.  The sutra tradition lists four rupavacara, whilst the Abbidhamma tradition lists five.  Through clarification and a step by step progression, the unnecessary attributes of mind are brought out and abandoned so that equanimity can be established and stabilised.  This is the foundational achievement for the movement into the higher – non-form – arupavacara jhanas.

1st Arupavacara Jhana.

Realising that resting in equanimity in relation to the physical world is a form of subtle attachment the practitioner abandons this position and disentangles the mind from the fine-material danger associated with the fourth jhanic state, and instead allows the mind to explore boundless space.  The equanimity of the fourth absorption contains within it the inherent limiting of the mind in the face of matter.  The mind confronts matter and is made ‘still’ through concentration.  In the fifth absorption the unnatural boundaries that defined the fourth absorption fall away, allowing the mind to expand throughout the universe.  It is a state no longer defined by the perceptual boundaries of gross matter (rupa), but is rather boundaryless (arupa), and is beyond arbitrary limit.  A well known Buddhist meditation technique is to cultivate an attribute such as loving kindness (metta), and then project that attribute in all directions and toward all beings.  In this absorption the mind expands in all directions quite naturally and all at once, due to the condition of ‘giving up’ any notions of comfortable attachment to the state of equanimity achieved within the fourth absorption – and the fifth absorption is successfully entered.  One-pointed concentration is now so strong that any apparent or potential discord (seen within the mind), can be clearly cognised, understood and dealt with through right effort.  The concentration upon the meditative method moves the practitioner beyond attainments in relation to the physical world, toward attainments not dependent upon (or limited) by the physical world.  In this state the chosen meditative method that has taken the practitioner through all the previous jhanas, is used one more time to establish the expanded mind in the ten directions.  Once the expansion has been successfully achieved, boundless space manifests and becomes the new subject of the meditation.  The practitioner focuses attention exclusively upon the experience of boundless space.  Boundless space is ‘boundless’ because the mind has become free of its previously limiting delusions.

2nd Arupavacara Jhana.

Boundless space has been established, but the close proximity to the fine-material realms motivates the practitioner to established one-pointed concentration and enters the realm of the sixth absorption.  Boundless space is surmounted and replaced by boundless consciousness.  This stage is literally the attainment of ‘awareness’ becoming ‘aware’ of its own presence.  This is the contemplation of the consciousness that pervades boundless space, moving the emphasis away from the space itself and into the consciousness expansion.  By continuously directing awareness toward infinite (boundless) consciousness, and away from boundless space, infinite consciousness, as the emphasis of the meditation technique, replaces the previous focus upon boundless space.  The meditation technique has led to the expansion of mind in its spatial aspect.  Expanding loving-kindness, compassion or whatever chosen method into the ten directions has allowed for the acquisition of the state of boundless space.  In-turn, the mind, through an act of will (cetana), has developed and refined its perception of empty space so that the permeated conscious present, has been thoroughly cognised, understood and established.  As falling back into old habits of worldly involvement is not desirable, the practitioner pushes onward, to attain ever deepening states of enlightenment.  Boundless space and boundless consciousness are experienced, from the practitioner’s perspective, as if he were existent within a three dimensional sphere of awareness, that contains the entirety of creation.  This awareness of consciousness within space is the attainment of the second arupa jhana, which is counted as the sixth absorption.

3rd Arupavacara Jhana.

The structured meditative method develops the first four (rupa) jhanas, and creates the conditions for the achievement of boundless empty space (and the subsequent development of the higher ‘arupa’ jhana), where it is given up, and is replaced by concentration upon the empty space itself (sixth absorption).  Concentration is then subtly shifted so that the awareness of the consciousness that permeates empty space is contemplated (seventh absorption).  Consciousness that is conscious of itself is viewed as limiting the practitioner in the search for enlightenment and is abandoned.  Every stage of jhanic attainment has the potential risk of attachment to it fruits.  Step by step, the attainments are acquired, attachment is acknowledged, and the attainments abandoned in sequence, ensuring an ever deepening of the understanding and penetration of the mind essence itself.  In this seventh absorption, consciousness is abandoned, and the state of mind often described as consisting of ‘nothingness’ (akincanna), but is probably better described as ‘no-something-ness’, and should not be confused with ‘sunyata’, the essential emptiness of the universe.  This stage is symbolised by a mind free of content and object.  It is this ‘emptiness’ that is contemplated as the concentration is moved from a focus upon boundless consciousness to that of ‘nothingness’ that is voidness and non-existence.  The meditator, through analysis, realises that consciousness has a base of ‘nothingness’ (no-something-ness).  By emphasising this insight, the state of the seventh absorption is established.  Boundless space gives way to boundless consciousness, which in-turn gives way to boundless ‘nothingness’.

4th Arupavacara Jhana.

Every jhanic stage is at risk from contamination from the stage immediately preceding it, and is inspired and driven onward by the state that immediately succeeds it.  Each new stage that is attained renders the fruits of the previous stage redundant and obsolete.  It is a system of ever improving and expanding conscious development.  There is a stage beyond the contemplation of boundless nothingness.  A subtle attachment is present to the state of nothingness.  Even at this high stage a worldly attribute exists.  By striving to abandon this attachment to nothingness, the eight absorption of neither perception nor non-perception is entered.  The five hindrances are fully suppressed and mindfulness is established.

Through the eight absorptions concentration and equanimity are established.  Although often presented as a meditative exercise separate and distinct from vipassana (insight) meditation, nevertheless, it is true that jhana development does involve the development of insight as well as its key attributes of concentration and equanimity.  For Buddhist enlightenment, however, this is not the end of the path.  Usually, within early Buddhism, jhana (tranquillity) meditation is practiced in conjunction with vipassana (insight) meditation so that true wisdom (prajna) is developed, for the final realisation of Nirvana (extinction of deluded outflows in the mind).  Sometimes, a ninth jhana is imagined by scholars, but as this term does not exist in the sutras themselves, such a description carries no true descriptive value.  The Buddha already teaches that despite the high attainments achieved in the practice of the eight jhanas, another level still exists –namely that of the cessation of feelings and perception.  Although jhanic development can be found in many places within the Pali Canon, the Anupada Sutta is of particular interest as the Buddha describes the eight jhanic states – one after another – with reference to the cessation of feeling and perception discussed as if it where the consequence of the attainment of the eight absorption, when the state had been thoroughly experienced, established and understood.  Neither perception nor non-perception has the consequence of the establishment of the non-arising of feeling and perception.  Through the realisation of ‘neither perception nor non-perception’, the conditions that usually create ‘feeling’ and ‘perception’ no longer arise.  This is not the arising of a ninth jhana, but rather the full and developed consequences of the eight.  So important are the jhanas that the Buddha entered into the absorptions at the passing away of his physical body.


Anupada Sutta: One After Another (MN 111) Accessed 26.1.12                                                                         


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