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A Swift Pair of Messengers
JHANA AND THE NOBLE ONES
‘The four who are on the way
We have seen that all the expositions of the path include samadhi as a central element. This being so, we should expect that samadhi as one of their intrinsic qualities ascribed to the noble individuals, those who bring the path to life. In this chapter the key sutta statements about the samadhi of the noble ones are collected, starting with the arahant (who seems to be indicated here by ‘noble one’).
‘Monks, there are ten ways of noble living, by which noble ones have dwelt in the past, will dwell in the future, and are dwelling now. What ten?
‘Here, monks, a monk has abandoned the five hindrances; has equanimity towards the six senses; guards mindfulness; is supported by using, enduring, avoiding, or dispelling after reflection; has rejected personal speculations about the truth; has utterly dismissed all searching; has unclouded intention; having tranquilized the bodily activity [of the breath]... he enters and abides in the fourth jhana; has mind well released with the abandoning of lust, anger, and delusion; and has understanding well released by understanding that lust, anger, and delusion have been permanently uprooted. Whatever noble ones that lived in the past, will live in the future, or are living now, all of them live according to these ten ways of noble living.’
Elsewhere, the first jhana is shown to be the minimum necessary prerequisite for arahantship; but this sutta confirms that all arahants would have access to fourth jhana after their attainment. Notice that this fourth jhana occurs with the tranquilizing of the breath. This obviously refers to a gradual process of settling, occurring at the very least over several minutes. This rules out any ‘momentary’ or transcendental ‘path-moment’ samadhi. For the arahant, free from all defilements, there is nothing to prevent the attainment of jhana.
‘Monk, having abandoned six things one can enter and abide in the first jhana. What six? Sensual desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and remorse, doubt; and the danger in sensual pleasures has been well seen with right understanding in accordance with reality.’
To hold that an arahant may not attain jhana is therefore tantamount to implying that they may still be subject to residual defilements. The historical context here is revealing. In virtually all other schools of Buddhism, a threefold development occurred contemporaneous with the development of the jhana-less arahant in the Theravada. Firstly, the Buddha was exalted from being a perfected human to being a god; secondly, the arahant was downgraded, subject, it was felt, to residual sensuality, lack of universal knowledge, even selfishness; and thirdly, the Bodhisattva ideal emerged from obscurity to fill the resulting gap as an alternative way of practice. These trends culminated in the Mahayana. In an attenuated form, the first and third of these trends are also evident in the Theravada commentaries. It should therefore come as no surprise to find the status of the arahant being gradually eroded. Some scholars, however, attempt to derive the jhana-less arahant from one described in the suttas as ‘released by understanding’.
‘ “Released by understanding, released by understanding”, is said, friend. What was the Blessed One referring to when he spoke of the one released by understanding?’
'Here, friend, a monk... enters and abides in the first jhana. He understands that. This is what the Blessed One was referring to, with qualification, when he spoke of the one released by understanding. Again ... he enters and abides in the second jhana ... third jhana ... fourth jhana ... base of infinite space ... base of infinite consciousness ... base of nothingness ... base of neither perception nor non-perception... cessation of perception and feeling. Having seen with understanding, his poisons are completely evaporated. He understands that. This is what the Blessed One was referring to, without qualification, when he spoke of the one released by understanding.’
Elsewhere, however, the arahant released by understanding is, somewhat inconsistently, said to not dwell in the formless attainments. The main point, then, is not which level of samadhi is achieved, but the emphasis on wisdom at each level. Nowhere in the suttas is it stated or implied that an arahant released by understanding does not attain the four jhanas.
The non-returner shares with the arahant the distinction of being ‘perfected in samadhi’. With a typically memorable simile, the Buddha explains to Venerable Ananda how the non-returner cuts through the five lower fetters.
‘There is a path, Ananda, a way for the abandoning of the five lower fetters. That someone, without coming to that path, that way, could know or see or abandon the five lower fetters [thereby becoming a non-returner]: that is not possible. Just as when there is a great tree with heartwood standing, it is not possible that anyone could cut out the heartwood without first cutting through the bark and sapwood.... But that someone, by coming to that path, that way, could know and see and abandon the five lower fetters: that is possible.
‘And what, Ananda, is that path? Here, with seclusion from belongings, the abandoning of unbeneficial qualities, the complete tranquilization of bodily disturbance, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unbeneficial qualities, a monk enters and abides in the first jhana ... second jhana ... third jhana ... fourth jhana ... base of infinite space ... base of infinite consciousness ... base of nothingness. Whatever exists in there of feeling, perception, conceptual activities, and consciousness [also physical form in the four jhanas only], he sees those phenomena as impermanent, suffering, a disease, a tumor, a barb, a calamity, an affliction, alien, disintegrating, empty, not-self. He turns his mind away from those phenomena and directs it towards the deathless element thus: “This is peaceful, this is sublime; that is, the samatha of all activities, the relinquishment of all belongings, the evaporation of craving, fading away, cessation, Nibbana.” Standing on that he attains the evaporation of the poisons [or to the state of non-return].... This is the path, the way for the abandoning of the five lower fetters.’
‘In that case, Bhante, how is it that some monks are released of heart and some are released by understanding?’
‘The difference here, Ananda, is in their spiritual faculties, I say.’
Here again the simile drives home that not only is each stage of the path absolutely necessary, it is just as necessary that they occur in the correct sequence: first the bark, then the sapwood, then the heartwood. The samadhi here occurs with the ‘tranquilizing of bodily disturbance’ (sometimes rendered ‘inertia’, but one cannot tranquilize inertia). The remarks above on the incompatibility of ‘path-moment’ samadhi with the tranquilizing of the breath apply here also. This is confirmed yet again in the body of the text, which treats samadhi exclusively as a basis for vipassana, not as an enlightenment experience. Realization then occurs after vipassana.
The suttas do not record any similarly forceful, definitive statements about the samadhi required by the other ‘trainees’ ‑ the stream-enterer, the once-returner, and those on the way ‑ yet the basic position is straightforward.
‘Here, a monk is endowed with the right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi of a trainee. That is what "trainee" refers to.’
‘For a long time, Bhante, I have understood the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One thus: there is knowledge for one who has samadhi, not for one without samadhi. But which comes first, samadhi or knowledge?’
... Mahanama, the virtue, samadhi, and understanding of both the trainee and the adept have been spoken of by the Blessed One.... And what is the samadhi of the trainee? Here, a monk ... enters and abides in the first jhana ... second jhana ... third jhana ... fourth jhana.’
Although Venerable Ananda’s answer is not explicit, it seems to imply that the samadhi of the trainee comes before the understanding of the trainee, but the understanding of the trainee comes before the samadhi of the adept.
‘One trains in the higher virtue, the higher mind, and the higher understanding, therefore a monk is called a trainee.’
‘What is the training in the higher mind? Here, a monk... enters and abides in the first jhana ... second jhana ... third jhana ... fourth jhana.’
‘And what is a true person? Here, someone is of right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi.’
‘How is a person an unshakeable contemplative [i.e. a stream-enterer]? Here a monk has right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi.’
‘Sariputta, one who is endowed with this noble eightfold path is called a stream-enterer, this venerable one of such and such a name and clan.’
Such statements should not be taken to restrict the possession of the path to the stream-enterer, for the once-returner, etc., also possess the path. ‘One who’ (yo) is indicative, not distributive (which would be yo yo or yo koci). The point is simply that the ‘stream’ is the practice and the ‘stream-enterer’ is the practitioner.
‘Here, a monk has fulfilled virtue and has measure of samadhi and understanding... with the evaporation of three fetters he is a stream-enterer...’
‘A faithful noble disciple, having thus repeatedly practiced striving, remembering, samadhi, and understanding, has full confidence thus: “These principles which I had previously only heard about I now abide in having personally contacted, and see having penetrated with understanding.” ’ 
In general, the Buddha described the wrong eightfold path as the ‘bad path’. Here he is more specific.
‘Samadhi is the path; no samadhi is the bad path.’
‘Without abandoning paying attention away from the root, cultivation of the bad path, and laziness of the heart, it is impossible to abandon identity view, doubt, and misapprehension of virtue and vows.’
If the ‘path’ by which these three fetters are abandoned by the stream-enterer is, or more modestly, includes samadhi, it may be inferred that those on the path to stream-entry also possess samadhi. Being destined for enlightenment, these individuals are of great interest to the aspirant, although since the Theravada tradition relegates them to the status of a ‘mind moment’ they are often overlooked. If they possess jhana it follows as a matter of course that those at higher stages will too. They are regularly credited with the five spiritual faculties.
‘One who has completely fulfilled these five spiritual faculties is an arahant. If they are weaker, he is one on the way to witnessing the fruit of arahantship. If they are weaker than that he is a non-returner... one on the way to non-returning ... a once‑returner... one on the way to once-returning ... a stream-enterer... If they are weaker than that, he is one on the way to witnessing the fruit of stream-entry. But monks, I say that one in whom these five spiritual faculties are completely and totally absent is an outsider, one who stands in the faction of ordinary persons.’
So the one on the way to stream-entry possesses the spiritual faculty of samadhi, albeit weakly. ‘Weakly’ is of course quite different from ‘not at all’. Below we will examine several passages that describe those on the way to stream-entry in detail, clarifying what is meant by ‘weakly’.
This path attainer is further described as the ‘Dhamma-follower’ and the ‘faith-follower’. Although these terms are most commonly used to distinguish between those on the way to stream-entry as giving chief emphasis to either understanding or faith, in a few passages they seem to be used as complementary descriptions of these ‘wayfarers’ treated as a single group. This is reminiscent of the usage of the analogous terms ‘release of heart, release by understanding’ which we briefly noted above (Chapter two). In fact, the ‘suttas’ treatment of the different classifications of noble individuals (apart from the standard set of four pairs) is somewhat loose, and must be sensitively judged in each context. Even when they are differentiated, the Dhamma-follower has the spiritual faculty of faith, while the faith-follower has the spiritual faculty of understanding, leaving no doubt that the difference is simply a matter of emphasis, and explaining how both terms can also be applied to all the wayfarers without distinction. The following passage compares the Dhamma-follower and the faith-follower with the stream-enterer. ‘Rightness’ is the noble eightfold path.
‘Monks, the eye ... the ear ... the nose ... the tongue ... the body ... the mind is impermanent, changing, becoming otherwise. One who has faith and certainty in these principles thus is called a faith-follower, one who has entered the fixed course of rightness, entered the plane of true persons, and transcended the plane of ordinary persons. He is incapable of doing any action having done which he would be reborn in hell, an animal’s womb, or the ghost realm. He is incapable of passing away without having witnessed the fruit of stream-entry.
‘Monks, the eye ... the ear ... the nose ... the tongue ... the body ... the mind is impermanent, changing, becoming otherwise. One who thus accepts these principles after pondering with a measure of understanding is called a Dhamma-follower, one who has entered the fixed course of rightness, entered the plane of true persons, and transcended the plane of ordinary persons. He is incapable of doing any action having done which he would be reborn in hell, an animal’s womb, or the ghost realm. He is incapable of passing away without having witnessed the fruit of stream-entry.
‘One who knows and sees these principles thus is called a stream-enterer, not subject to [rebirth in] the abyss, fixed in destiny, destined for enlightenment.’
While the above passage deals with the understanding of the wayfarers, the following deals with their samadhi.
‘What kind of person is the Dhamma-follower? Here, monks, a certain person does not, having transcended forms, personally contact and abide in those peaceful formless liberations, and his poisons are not fully evaporated after being seen with understanding. But he accepts after pondering with a measure of understanding the principles made known by the Tathagata, and he has these qualities: the spiritual faculties of faith, energy, mindfulness, samadhi, and understanding....
‘What kind of person is the faith-follower? Here, monks, a certain person does not, having transcended forms, personally contact and abide in those peaceful formless liberations, and his poisons are not fully evaporated after being seen with understanding. But he has a measure of faith and affection for the Tathagata, and he has these qualities: the spiritual faculties of faith, energy, mindfulness, samadhi, and understanding...’
In the following passage, ‘laughing understanding’ and ‘swift understanding’ refer to the arahant and the non-retumer, ‘release’ to the arahant only. Although the terms are not used, the first kind of person is obviously the Dhamma-follower, and the second is the faith-follower.
‘Here, Mahanama, a certain person is endowed neither with confirmed confidence in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, nor with laughing understanding, swift understanding, or release. Yet he has these qualities: the spiritual faculties of faith, energy, mindfulness, samadhi, and understanding; and he accepts the Dhamma made known by the Tathagata after pondering with a measure of understanding. Even this person will not go to hell, an animal’s womb, the ghost realm, or to a lower realm, bad destiny, or the abyss.
‘Here, Mahanama, a certain person is endowed neither with confirmed confidence in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, nor with laughing understanding, swift understanding, or release. Yet he has these qualities: the spiritual faculties of faith, energy, mindfulness, samadhi, and understanding; and he has a measure of faith and affection for the Tathagata. Even this person will not go to hell, an animal’s womb, the ghost realm, or to a lower realm, bad destiny, or the abyss.’
Those on the way to stream-entry are contrasted with the stream-enterer in terms of their primary cognitive mode. The stream-enterer ‘knows and sees’ directly, while the wayfarers accept by faith or by pondering, i.e. with primarily emotive or intellectual acquiescence to the teachings. These kinds of acceptance are two of five ways of knowing mentioned elsewhere, which may lead to either right or wrong conclusions, and which do not constitute ‘awakening to the truth’. However, if correctly apprehended ‑ as provisional, not conclusive ‑ they form part of the practice for awakening. In fact, acquiescence in line with the teachings is necessary before one can enter the way. Although this contrast is consistent with the normal ascription of ‘knowledge and vision in accordance with reality’ to the stream-enterer, elsewhere the noble ones as a whole are described as ‘directly knowing’ in contrast with the ordinary person, who merely ‘perceives’. Rather than describing these wayfarers as directly knowing or not, it seems more relevant to describe them as being in the process of coming to know. Like the time just before sunrise: compared with midnight it is light, but compared with midday it is still dark. When contrasted with the ordinary person, then, it may be said that they have direct knowledge, but when contrasted with the stream-enterer their knowledge is primarily conceptual. The possession of the spiritual faculty of understanding, though limited in this way, implies a degree of direct introspective insight. Not having fully seen the Dhamma, they also lack ‘confirmed confidence’. Earlier, we saw this as a key ingredient of the ‘relinquishment’ that supports the samadhi of the stream-enterer. The wayfarers would instead rely on their own intrinsic qualities: love of the Buddha, freedom from doubt about the teachings, and lack of remorse for doing evil.
While the texts exhibit some equivocation over the understanding and faith faculties of those on the way to stream-entry, no such hesitation is expressed regarding their samadhi faculty. The Buddha specifically addresses the question of the level of samadhi required for the initial entry to the path. In common with the arahant released by understanding (sometimes), the wayfarers do not have the formless liberations. But they are repeatedly declared to possess the spiritual faculty of samadhi, i.e. jhana. Although the Buddha took pains to make the attainment of the way to stream-entry appear accessible, emphasizing the qualities that the Dhamma-follower and faith-follower lack, nowhere is jhana included among the qualities that they lack. The weakness of the spiritual faculty of samadhi may be explained by the weakness of the supporting ‘relinquishment’. The weakness of the faculty, it may be noted, does not necessarily imply weakness of samadhi. Even ordinarily people, while totally bereft of the faculties, may be highly skilled in all samadhi attainments. The term ‘spiritual faculty’ implies rather that these principles become the ascendant prevailing dispositions, dominant in their own fields, and not to be overthrown. For ordinarily people, the long-term prognosis is decline from the heights they have attained, and eventually perhaps rebirth even in hell; while for the trainees, though they may still have short-term difficulties, the long term will bring only progress.
If the wayfarers possess jhana, why then, as we saw above, is samadhi not directly stated in the dependent liberation to be a vital condition for this attainment? Consider the structure of the noble eightfold path. One starts with conceptual right view, and then develops the remaining factors culminating in right samadhi, which includes reviewing knowledge, a wisdom practice. At this point all the path factors have been fulfilled to a degree which may for some be sufficient for entering the way. So it seems that the attainment of right samadhi may itself be equivalent to entering the way. It therefore could not be said that it is a condition for entering the way, since nothing can be a condition for itself. This does not necessarily imply that all those with right view who develop samadhi become noble ones; this would depend on one’s spiritual maturity, especially one’s depth of wisdom or faith.
Since the wayfarers must inevitably attain stream-entry in this very life, even if prevented from practicing by, say, grave illness or sudden death, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that they need not further develop their meditation after the entry to the path. This makes sense if we understand the attainment of the path as requiring development of all the path factors to a sufficient degree, such that the conditions for stream-entry are already fulfilled, requiring only time to bear their fruit. There does not seem to be any method given to ascertain exactly how much the path factors must be developed to reach this point. Normally, of course, the character of such individuals would be to delight in meditation, and the Buddha further exhorts them to put forth effort to minimize their time in samsara.
All noble ones are consistently and repeatedly said to be endowed with samadhi as a path-factor and spiritual faculty, to possess the samadhi of a trainee, and to train in the higher mind. These are all defined as jhana. In my opinion, the conclusion is inescapable: jhana is necessary for all the stages of noble liberation. The noble path has eight factors. jhanas are one of those factors. Only with the fulfillment of all eight factors can one be considered to be on the path. At the end of our labyrinthine tour of the suttas we return to this simple, straightforward principle. Our explorations of the subtle, sometimes enigmatic, world of the suttas serve to illuminate this model, revealing unexpected nuances, unappreciated depths. Like a fugue, where the main theme is reflected in every note, not distorted but enhanced by the modulations and transformations; so too the keynote of peace permeates the path. As we will see below, this pervasion is so complete that the very passages which at first glance may seem to introduce a new thematic paradigm, with sensitive appraisal often turn out to enrich our appreciation of the essential theme.
‘I say, monk, that the evaporation of the poisons is dependant on the first jhana ... second jhana ... third jhana ... fourth jhana ... base of infinite space ... base of infinite consciousness ... base of nothingness ... base of neither perception nor non-perception.’
 S1.916 Bhikkhu Bodhi, citing the commentarial gloss on another verse, renders ‘samahita’ as ‘endowed’, not ‘concentrated’. His reason is not compelling, and I prefer to see the phrase as a straightforward summary of the threefold training. The question is not doctrinally crucial.
 A10.20 condensed
 e.g. M64, A9.36 quoted pg 119
 M70.16, S12.70, cp. A4.87
 A3.84 cp. M48.12
 A3.88, 89
 A3.86, 386, 9.12
 e.g. M22.46, M34.10
 M95.14ff cp. S12.68
 A6.88, A6.98ff
 e.g. M1, S48.5
 Similar principles may be inferred of those on the way to once-returning, etc., since the suttas never include them when describing the passing away of the noble ones.
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last updated: 06-09-2004