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The Jhanas in Theravada Buddhist Meditation
by Bhikkhu Henepola Gunaratana

Chapter 5

Jhana and The Supramundane


The Way of Wisdom

The goal of the Buddhist path, complete and permanent liberation from suffering, is to be achieved by practicing the full threefold discipline of morality (sila), concentration (samadhi), and wisdom (panna). The mundane jhanas, comprising the four fine-material jhanas and the four immaterial jhanas, pertain to the stage of concentration, which they fulfill to an eminent degree. However, taken by themselves, these states do not ensure complete deliverance, for they are incapable of cutting off the roots of suffering. The Buddha teaches that the cause of suffering, the driving power behind the cycle of rebirths, is the defilements with their three unwholesome roots -- greed, hatred and delusion. Concentration of the absorption level, no matter to what heights it is pursued, only suppresses the defilements, but cannot destroy their latent seeds. Thence bare mundane jhana, even when sustained, cannot by itself terminate the cycle of rebirths. To the contrary, it may even perpetuate the round. For if any fine-material or immaterial jhana is held to with clinging, it will bring about a rebirth in that particular plane of existence corresponding to its own kammic potency, which can then be followed by rebirth in some lower realm.

What is required to achieve complete deliverance from the cycle of rebirths is the eradication of the defilements. Since the most basic defilement is ignorance (avijja), the key to liberation lies in developing its direct opposite, namely wisdom (panna).

Since wisdom presupposes a certain proficiency in concentration it is inevitable that jhana comes to claim a place in its development. This place, however, is not fixed and invariable, but as we will see allows for differences depending on the individual mediator's disposition.

Fundamental to the discussion in this chapter is a distinction between two terms crucial to Theravada philosophical exposition, "mundane" (lokiya) and "supramundane" (lokuttara). The term "mundane" applies to all phenomena comprised in the world (loka) -- to subtle states of consciousness as well as matter, to virtue as well as evil, to meditative attainments as well as sensual engrossments. The term "supramundane," in contrast, applies exclusively to that which transcends the world, that is the nine supramundane states: Nibbana, the four noble paths (magga) leading to Nibbana, and their corresponding fruits (phala) which experience the bliss of Nibbana.

Wisdom has the specific characteristic of penetrating the true nature of phenomena. It penetrates the particular and general features of things through direct cognition rather than discursive thought. Its function is "to abolish the darkness of delusion which conceals the individual essences of states" and its manifestation is "non-delusion." Since the Buddha says that one whose mind is concentrated knows and sees things as they are, the proximate cause of wisdom is concentration (Vism. 438; PP.481).

The wisdom instrumental in attaining liberation is divided into two principal types: insight knowledge (vipassananana) and the knowledge pertaining to the supramundane paths (magganana). The first is the direct penetration of the three characteristics of conditioned phenomena -- impermanence, suffering and non-self. [1] It takes as its objective sphere the five aggregates (pancakkhandha) -- material form, feeling perception, mental formations and consciousness. Because insight knowledge takes the world of conditioned formations as its object, it is regarded as a mundane form of wisdom. Insight knowledge does not itself directly eradicate the defilements, but serves to prepare the way for the second type of wisdom, the wisdom of the supramundane paths, which emerges when insight has been brought to its climax. The wisdom of the path, occurring in four distinct stages ( to be discussed below ), simultaneously realizes Nibbana, fathoms the Four Noble Truths, and cuts off the defilements. This wisdom is called "supramundane" because it rises up from the world of the five aggregates to realize the state transcendent to the world, Nibbana.

The Buddhist disciple, striving for deliverance, begins the development of wisdom by first securely establishing its roots -- purified moral discipline and concentration. He then learns and masters the basic material upon which wisdom is to work -- the aggregates, elements, sense bases, dependent arising, the Four Noble Truths, etc. He commences the actual practice of wisdom by cultivating insight into the impermanence, suffering and non-self aspect of the five aggregates. When this insight reaches its apex it issues in supramundane wisdom, the right view factor of the Noble Eightfold Path, which turns from conditioned formations to the unconditioned Nibbana and thereby eradicates the defilements.

The Two Vehicles

The Theravada tradition recognizes two alternative approaches to the development of wisdom, between which practitioners are free to choose according to their aptitude and propensity. These two approaches are the vehicle of serenity (samathayana) and the vehicle of insight (vipassanayana). The meditators who follow them are called, respectively, the samathayanika," one who makes serenity his vehicle," and the vipassanayanika, "one who makes insight his vehicle, " Since both vehicles, despite their names, are approaches to developing insight, to prevent misunderstanding the latter type of meditator is sometimes called a suddhavipassanayanika, "one who makes bare insight his vehicle," or a sukkhavipassaka, "a dry-insight worker."

Though all three terms appear initially in the commentaries rather than in the suttas, the recognition of the two vehicles seems implicit in a number of canonical passages.

The samathayanika is a meditator who first attains access concentration or one of the eight mundane jhanas, then emerges and uses his attainment as a basis for cultivating insight until he arrives at the supramundane path. In contrast, the vipassanayanika does not attain mundane jhana prior to practicing insight contemplation, or if he does, does not use it as an instrument for cultivating insight. Instead, without entering and emerging from jhana, he proceeds directly to insight contemplation on mental and material phenomena and by means of this bare insight he reaches the noble path. For both kinds of meditator the experience of the path in any of its four stages always occurs at a level of jhanic intensity and thus necessarily includes supramundane jhana under the heading of right concentration (samma samadhi), the eighth factor of the Noble Eightfold Path.

The classical source for the distinction between the two vehicles of serenity and insight is the Visuddhimagga where it is explained that when a meditator begins the development of wisdom "if firstly, his vehicle is serenity, [he] should emerge from any fine-material or immaterial jhana except the base consisting of neither-perception-nor-non-perception, and he should discern, according to characteristic, function, etc. the jhana factors consisting of applied thought, etc. and the states associated with them" (Vism. 557; PP679-80). Other commentarial passages allow access concentration to suffice for the vehicle of serenity, but the last immaterial jhana is excluded because its factors are too subtle to be discerned. The meditator whose vehicle is pure insight, on the other hand, is advised to start directly by discerning material and mental phenomena, beginning with the four elements, without utilizing a jhana for this purpose (Vism. 558; PP.680). Thus the samathayanika first attains access concentration or mundane jhana and then develops insight knowledge, by means of which he reaches the supramundane path containing wisdom under the heading of right view, and supramundane jhana under the heading of right concentration. The vipassanayanika, in contrast, skips over mundane jhana and goes directly into insight contemplation. When he reaches the end of the progression of insight knowledge he arrives at the supramundane path which, as in the previous case, brings together wisdom with supramundane jhana. This jhana counts as his accomplishment of serenity.

For a meditator following the vehicle of serenity the attainment of jhana fulfills two functions: first, it produces a basis of mental purity and inner collectedness needed for undertaking the work of insight contemplation; and second, it serves as an object to be examined with insight in order to discern the three characteristics of impermanence, suffering and non-self. Jhana accomplishes the first function by providing a powerful instrument for overcoming the five hindrances. As we have seen, for wisdom to arise the mind must first be concentrated well, and to be concentrated well it must be freed from the hindrances, a task accomplished pre-eminently by the attainment of jhana. Though access concentration will keep the hindrances at bay, jhana will ensure that they are removed to a much safer distance.

In their capacity for producing concentration the jhanas are called the basis (pada) for insight, and that particular jhana a meditator enters and emerges from before commencing his practice of insight is designated his padakajjhana, the basic or foundational jhana. Insight cannot be practiced while absorbed in jhana, since insight meditation requires investigation and observation, which are impossible when the mind is immersed in one-pointed absorption. But after emerging form the jhana the mind is cleared of the hindrances, and the stillness and clarity that then result conduce to precise, penetrating insight.

The jhanas also enter into the samathayanika's practice in second capacity, that is, as objects for scrutinization by insight. The practice of insight consists essentially in the examination of mental and physical phenomena to discover their marks of impermanence, suffering and non-self. The jhanas a meditator attains provide him with a readily available and strikingly clear object in which to seek out the three characteristics. After emerging from a jhana the meditator will proceed to examine the jhanic consciousness and to discern the way it exemplifies the three universal marks. This process is called sammasananana, "comprehension knowledge," and the jhana subject to such treatment is termed sammasitajjhana, "the comprehended jhana" (Vism. 607-11; PP.706-10). Though the basic jhana and the comprehended jhana will often be the same, the two do not necessarily coincide. A meditator cannot practice comprehension on a jhana higher than he is capable of attaining, but one who uses a higher jhana as his padakajjhana can still practice insight comprehension on a lower jhana which he has previously attained and mastered. The admitted difference between the padakajjhana and the sammasitajjhana leads to discrepant theories about the supramundane concentration of the noble path, as we will see.

Whereas the sequence of training undertaken by the samathayanika meditator is unproblematic, the vipassanayanika's approach presents the difficulty of accounting for the concentration he uses to provide a basis for insight. Concentration is needed in order to see and know things as they are, but without access concentration or jhana, what concentration can he use? The solution to this problem is found in a type of concentration distinct from the access and absorption concentrations pertaining to the vehicle of serenity, called "momentary concentration" (khanika samadhi). Despite its name, momentary concentration does not signify a single moment of concentration amidst a current of distracted thoughts, but a dynamic concentration which flows from object to object in the ever-changing flux of phenomena, retaining a constant degree of intensity and collectedness sufficient to purify the mind of the hindrances. Momentary concentration arises in the samathayanika simultaneously with his post-jhanic attainment of insight, but for the vipassanayanika it develops naturally and spontaneously in the course of his insight practice without his having to fix the mind upon a single exclusive object. Thus the follower of the vehicle of insight does not omit concentration altogether from his training, but develops it in a different manner from the practitioner of serenity. Without gaining jhana he goes directly into contemplation on the five aggregates and by observing them constantly from moment to moment acquires momentary concentration as an accompaniment of his investigations. This momentary concentration fulfills the same function as the basic jhana of the serenity vehicle, providing the foundation of mental clarity needed for insight to emerge.

Supramundane Jhana

The climax in the development of insight is the attainment of the supramundane paths and fruits. Each path is a momentary peak experience directly apprehending Nibbana and permanently cutting off certain defilements. These defilements are generally grouped into a set of ten "fetters" (samyojana) which keep beings chained to the round of rebirths. The first path, called the path of stream-entry (sota patti) because it marks the entry into the stream of the Dhamma, eradicates the first three fetters -- The false view of self, doubt, and clinging to rites and rituals. The disciple who has reached stream-entry has limited his future births to a maximum of seven in the happy realms of the human and heavenly worlds, after which he will attain final deliverance. But an ardent disciple may progress to still higher stages in the same life in which he reaches stream-entry, by making an aspiration for the next higher path and again undertaking the development of insight with the aim of reaching that path.

The next supramundane path is that of the once-returner (sakadagami). This path does not eradicate any fetters completely, but it greatly attenuates sensual desire and ill will. The once-returner is so called because he is bound to make an end of suffering after returning to this world only one more time. The third path, that of the non-returner (anagami) utterly destroys the sensual desire and ill will weakened by the preceding path. The non-returner is assured that he will never again take rebirth in the sense-sphere; if he does not penetrate higher he will be reborn spontaneously in the Pure Abodes and there reach final Nibbana. The highest path, the path of arahatship, eradicate the remaining five fetters -- desire for existence in the fine-material and immaterial spheres, conceit, restlessness and ignorance. The arahat has completed the development of the entire path taught by the Buddha; he has reached the end of rebirths and can sound his "lion's roar": "Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what was to be done has been done, there is nothing further beyond this."

Each path is followed immediately by the supramundane experience of fruition, which results from the path, comes in the same four graded stages, and shares the path's world-transcending character. But whereas the path performs the active function of cutting off defilements, fruition simply enjoys the bliss and peace that result when the path has completed its task. Also, where the path is limited to a single moment of consciousness, the fruition that follows immediately on the path endures for two or three moments. And while each of the four paths occurs only once and can never be repeated, fruition remains accessible to the noble disciple at he appropriate level. He can resort to it as a special meditative state called fruition attainment (phalasamapatti) for the purpose of experiencing nibbanic bliss here and now (Vism. 699-702; PP.819-24).

The supramundane paths and fruits always arise as states of jhanic consciousness. They occur as states of jhana because they contain within themselves the jhana factors elevated to an intensity corresponding to that of the jhana factors in the mundane jhanas. Since they possess the jhana factors these states are able to fix upon their object with the force of full absorption. Thence, taking the absorptive force of the jhana factors as the criterion, the paths and fruits may be reckoned as belonging to either the first, second, third or fourth jhana of the fourfold scheme, or to the first, second, third, fourth or fifth jhana of the fivefold scheme.

The basis for the recognition of a supramundane type of jhana goes back to the suttas, especially to the section of "The Great Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness" where the Buddha defines right concentration of the Noble Eightfold Path by the standard formula for the four jhanas (D.ii,313). However, it is in the Abhidhamma that the connection between the jhanas, paths and fruits comes to be worked out with great intricacy of detail. The Dhammasangani, in its section on states of consciousness, expounds each of the path and fruition states of consciousness as occasions, first, of one or another of the four jhanas in the fourfold scheme, and then again as occasions of one or another of the five jhanas in the fivefold scheme (Dhs.74-86). Standard Abhidhammic exposition, as formalized in the synoptical manuals of Abhidhamma, employs the fivefold scheme and brings each of the paths and fruits into connection with each of the five jhanas. In this way the eight types of supramundane consciousness -- the path and fruition consciousness of stream-entry, the once-returner, the non-returner and arahatship -- proliferate to forty types of supramundane consciousness, since any path or fruit can occur at the level of any of the five jhanas. It should be noted, however, that there are no paths and fruits conjoined with the immaterial attainments, the reason being that supramundane jhana is presented solely from the standpoint of its factorial constitution, which for the immaterial attainment and the fifth jhana is identical -- equanimity and one-pointedness.

The fullest treatment of the supramundane jhanas in the authoritative Pali literature can be found in the Dhammasangani read in conjunction with its commentary, the Atthasalini. The Dhammasangani opens its analysis of the first wholesome supramundane consciousness with the words:

On the occasion when one develops supramundane jhana which is emancipating, leading to the demolition (of existence), for the abandonment of views, for reaching the first plane, secluded from sense pleasures ... one enters and dwells in the first jhana. (Dhs. 72)

The Atthasalini explains the word lokuttara, which we have been translating "supramundane," as meaning "it crosses over the world, it transcends the world, it stands having surmounted and overcome the world." It glosses the phrase "one develops jhana" thus: "One develops, produces, cultivates absorption jhana lasting for a single thought-moment." This gloss shows us two things about the consciousness of the path: that it occurs as a jhana at the level of full absorption and that this absorption of the path lasts for only a single thought-moment. The word "emancipating" (niyyanika) is explained to mean that this jhana "goes out" from the world, from the round of existence, the phrase "leading to demolition" (apacayagami) that it demolishes and dismantles the process of rebirth (Dhs.A.259).

This last phrase points to a striking difference between mundane and supramundane jhana. The Dhammasangani's exposition of the former begins: "On the occasion when one develops the path for rebirth in the fine-material sphere ... one enters and dwells in the first jhana" [my italics]. Thus, with this statement, mundane jhana is shown to sustain the round of rebirths; it is a wholesome kamma leading to renewed existence. But the supramundane jhana of the path does not promote the continuation of the round. To the contrary, it brings about the round's dismantling and demolition, as the Atthasalini shows with an illustrative simile:

The wholesome states of the three planes are said to lead to accumulation because they build up and increase death and rebirth in the round. But not this. Just as when one man has built up a wall eighteen feet high another might take a club and go along demolishing it, so this goes along demolishing and dismantling the deaths and rebirths built up by the wholesome kammas of the three planes by bringing about a deficiency in their conditions. Thus it leads to demolition. [2]

Supramundane jhana is said to be cultivated "for the abandoning of views." This phrase points to the function of the first path, which is to eradicate the fetters. The supramundane jhana of the first path cuts off the fetter of personality view and all speculative views derived from it. The Atthasalini points out that here we should understand that it abandons not only wrong views but other unwholesome states as well, namely, doubt, clinging to rites and rituals, and greed, hatred and delusion strong enough to lead to the plane of misery. The commentary explicates "for reaching the first plane" as meaning for attaining the fruit of stream-entry.

Besides these, several other differences between mundane and supramundane jhana may be briefly noted. First, with regard to their object, the mundane jhanas have as object a conceptual entity such as the counterpart sign of the kasinas or, in the case of the divine abodes, sentient beings. In contrast, for the supramundane jhana of the paths and fruits the object is exclusively Nibbana. With regard to their predominant tone, in mundane jhana the element of serenity prevails, while the supramundane jhana of the paths and fruits brings serenity and insight into balance. Wisdom is present as right view and serenity as right concentration, both function together in perfect harmony, neither one exceeding the other.

This difference in prevailing tone leads into a difference in function or activity between the two kinds of jhana. Both the mundane and supramundane are jhanas in the sense of closely attending (upanijjhana), but in the case of mundane jhana this close attention issues merely in absorption into the object, an absorption that can only suppress the defilement temporarily. In the supramundane jhana, particularly of the four paths, the coupling of close attention with wisdom brings the exercise of four functions at a single moment. These four functions each apply to one of the Four Noble Truths. The path penetrates the First Noble Truth by fully understanding suffering; it penetrates the Second Noble Truth by abandoning craving, the origin of suffering; it penetrates the Third Noble Truth by realizing Nibbana, the cessation of suffering; and it penetrates the fourth Noble Truth by developing the Noble Eightfold Path that leads to the end of suffering. Buddhaghosa illustrates this with the simile of a lamp, which also performs four tasks simultaneously: it burns the wick, dispels darkness, makes light appear, and consumes oil (Vism.690; PP.808).

The Jhanic Level of the Path and Fruit

When the paths and fruits are assigned to the level of the four or five jhanas, the question arises as to what factor determines their particular level of jhanic intensity. In other words, why do the path and fruit arise for one meditator at the level of the first jhana, for another at the level of the second jhana, and so forth? The commentaries present three theories concerning the determination of the jhanic level of the path, apparently deriving from the lineages of ancient teachers (Vism. 666-67; PP.778-80. Dhs.A.271-74). The first holds that it is the basic jhana, i.e. the jhana used as a basis for the insight leading to emergence in immediate proximity to the path, that governs the difference in the jhanic level of the path. A second theory says that the difference is governed by the aggregates made the objects of insight on the occasion of insight leading to emergence. A third theory holds that it is the personal inclination of the meditator that governs the difference.

According to the first theory the path arisen in a dry-insight meditator who lacks jhana, and the path arisen in one who possesses a jhana attainment but does not use it as a basis for insight, and the path arisen by comprehending formations after emerging from the first jhana, are all paths of the first jhana only. When the path is produced after emerging from the second, third, fourth and fifth jhanas (of the fivefold system) and using these as the basis for insight, then the path pertains to the level of the jhana used as a basis -- the second, third, fourth of fifth. For a meditator using an immaterial jhana as basis the path will be a fifth jhana path. Thus in this first theory, when formations are comprehended by insight after emerging from a basic jhana, then it is the jhana attainment emerged from at the point nearest to the path, i.e. just before insight leading to emergence is reached, that makes the path similar in nature to itself.

According to the second theory the path that arises is similar in nature to the states which are being comprehended with insight at the time insight leading to emergence occurs. Thus if the meditator, after emerging from a meditative attainment, is comprehending with insight sense-sphere phenomena or the constituents of the first jhana, then the path produced will occur at the level of the first jhana. On this theory, then, it is the comprehended jhana (sammasitajjhana) that determines the jhanic quality of the path. The one qualification that must be added is that a meditator cannot contemplate with insight a jhana higher than he is capable of attaining.

According to the third theory, the path occurs at the level of whichever jhana the meditator wishes -- either at the level of the jhana he has used as the basis for insight or at the level of the jhana he has made the object of insight comprehension. In other words, the jhanic quality of the path accords with his personal inclination. However, mere wish alone is not sufficient. For the path to occur at the jhanic level wished for, the mundane jhana must have been either made the basis for insight or used as the object of insight comprehension.

The difference between the three theories can be understood through a simple example. [3] If a meditator reaches the supramundane path by contemplating with insight the first jhana after emerging from the fifth jhana, then according to the first theory his path will belong to the fifth jhana, while according to the second theory it will belong to the first jhana. Thus these two theories are incompatible when a difference obtains between basic jhana and comprehended jhana. But according to the third theory, the path becomes of whichever jhana the meditator wishes, either the first or the fifth. Thus this doctrine does not necessarily clash with the other two.

Buddhaghosa himself does not make a decision among these three theories. He only points out that in all three doctrines, beneath their disagreements, there is the recognition that the insight immediately preceding the supramundane path determines the jhanic character of the path. For this insight is the proximate and the principal cause for the arising of the path, so whether it be the insight leading to emergence near the basic jhana or that occurring through the contemplated jhana or that fixed by the meditator's wish, it is in all cases this final phase of insight that gives definition to the supramundane path. Since the fruition that occurs immediately after the path has an identical constitution to the path, its own supramundane jhana is determined by the path. Thus a first jhana path produces a first jhana fruit, and so forth for the remaining jhanas.

[1] Anicca, dukkha, anatta
[2] Dhs.A.259.See Expositor, ii.289-90.
[3] Dhs.A.274. See Expositor, ii.310.

[Title Page] [Contents]
[1. Introduction] [2. Preparation for Jhana]
[3. The First Jhana] [4. The Higher Jhanas]
[5. Jhana & The Supramundane] [6. Jhanas & The Noble Disciples]

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