Rāga and Jhāna – Two Commonly Misunderstood Words

May 28, 2022; revised August 27, 2022

We will discuss two key Pali words, rāga and jhāna, that are also interrelated. People cultivate anariya jhāna due to rupa rāga and arupa rāga.

The Elephant in the Room – Wrong Translations

1. Many people are prevented from learning the correct teachings of the Buddha because of two key issues.

  1. It has become standard to translate the Tipiṭaka suttas word-by-word. Many suttas (especially on deep concepts) REQUIRE lengthy explanations.
  2. Some Pāli keywords DO NOT have equivalent English words. It is WRONG to translate anicca and anatta as impermanence and “no-self.”

2. Anicca and anatta are two words that require lengthy explanations. I have explained them in several posts. I will try to organize them in upcoming posts.

  • I will first explain the correct meanings of some simpler keywords.
Rāga – Not “Lust” or “Attachment”

3. The correct “pada nirutti” (etymology) of “rāga” comes from “” + “agga,” where “” means to “travel (in the saṁsaric journey)” and “agga” is to “give priority.” Thus, “rāga” means ” giving priority to engage in saṁsāric journey or rebirth process.” That happens because of the tendency to value different aspects of this world.

There are three types of rāga: kāma rāga, rupa rāga, and arupa rāga.

  1. Kāma rāga prioritizes sensual pleasures in the higher seven realms of kāma loka: the human realm and the six Deva realms. As long as one craves such pleasures, one will be born among the 11 realms of the kāma loka; rebirths in the lowest four realms are possible if one engages in immoral deeds while seeking sensual pleasures. See, “Lōbha, Rāga and Kāmacchanda, Kāmarāga.”
  2. Those who cultivate the rupāvacara jhānā prioritize jhānic pleasures over sensual pleasures; they have rupa rāga. One has to either SUPPRESS or ELIMINATE kāma rāga to get to such rupāvacara jhānā. Such jhānā led to rebirths in the 16 rupāvacara Brahma realms. Those Brahmas are born without the sense faculties for taste, smell, and touch because those senses are needed only for sensual pleasures.
  3. Those who have cultivated the arupāvacara jhānās have arupa rāga. That means one would be satisfied with only having the mind faculty (even less burden than rupāvacara jhānā.) Those who cultivate arupāvacara jhānā will be reborn in the four highest Brahma realms.
  • To attain Nibbāna (at Arahanthood), one must remove all three types of the rāga.
  • However, any of the three types of rāga CAN NOT be removed with willpower. It happens automatically via comprehension of the Four Noble Truths. See “Is It Necessary for a Buddhist to Eliminate Sensual Desires?”
Removal of Kāma Rāga, Rupa Rāga, and Arupa Rāga

4. The critical point here is that even if one gets to the highest arupāvacara jhānās, one can return to the kāma loka in the future and be reborn in an apāya.

  • Until one gets to at least the Sotapanna Anugāmi stage, rebirth in any realm is possible in the future because one can be born in the highest realms without overcoming the three saṁyojana that can lead to rebirth in the apāyās. But a Sotapanna Anugāmi, Sotapanna, or a Sakadāgāmi will be reborn in the kāma loka because they have kāma rāga.
  • With the removal of kāma rāga (at the Anāgāmi stage), rebirths in the 11 realms of kāma loka will stop.
  • Rupa rāga and arupa rāga are two saṁyojana that will be removed only at the Arahant stage. See “Dasa Samyōjana – Bonds in Rebirth Process.

5. Now, we can easily see why the Buddha said, “rāgakkhayo Nibbānan” OR “Nibbāna is the ending of all types of rāga.” Full Nibbāna requires the removal of all three types of rāga.

  • When one would not prioritize any realm in kāma loka, rupa loka, and arupa loka, the mind will become free, and one will attain Arahanthood. Upon the death of the physical body, there will be no rebirth among the 31 realms in this world.
  • Of course, dosa and moha would have been eliminated when that happens. Thus, the verse: “rāgakkhayo dosakkhayo mohakkhayo—idaṁ vuccati nibbānan”ti. See, for example, “Sāmaṇḍaka Sutta (SN 39.1).”
Jhāna – Result of Puñña Kamma

6. Cultivating jhānā is a particular type of puñña kamma, just like giving (dāna.) Cultivating jhānā is a puñña abhisaṅkhāra (puññābhisaṅkhāra.)

Paṭiccasamuppāda Vibhaṅga” explains the step “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra” as, “Tattha katame avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā? Puññābhisaṅkhāro, apuññābhisaṅkhāro, āneñjābhisaṅkhāro.”

Translated: “What is meant by ‘avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā?’ It means puññābhisaṅkhāra, apuññābhisaṅkhāra, āneñjābhisaṅkhāra arising due to avijjā.”

  • Now, let us discuss what types of rebirths arise due to those three types of abhisaṅkhāra. The same section of the “Paṭiccasamuppāda Vibhaṅga” describes those as well.
Three Types of Abhisaṅkhāra Lead to Rebirths Among the 31 Realms

7. “Tattha katamo apuññābhisaṅkhāroAkusalā cetanā kāmāvacarā—ayaṁ vuccati “apuññābhisaṅkhāro”.

Translated:Akusala cetanā leading to rebirths in the kāma loka is apuññābhisaṅkhāra.These are the rebirths in the apāyās (lowest four realms.)

Tattha katamo puññābhisaṅkhāro? Kusalā cetanā kāmāvacarā rūpāvacarā dānamayā sīlamayā bhāvanāmayā—ayaṁ vuccati “puññābhisaṅkhāro”.

Translated:Kusala cetanā leading to rebirths in the kāma loka and rupa loka are puññābhisaṅkhāra.Those rebirths in the kāma loka are the human realm, and the six Deva realms are due to (dānamayā sīlamayā) kusala kamma. Rebirths in the rupa loka (16 rupāvacara Brahma realms) require (bhāvanāmayā) kusala kamma, i.e., rupāvacara jhāna.

Tattha katamo āneñjābhisaṅkhāroKusalā cetanā arūpāvacarā—ayaṁ vuccati “āneñjābhisaṅkhāro”.

Translated:Kusala cetanā leading to rebirths in the arupa loka are āneñjābhisaṅkhāra.Those kusala kamma are the cultivation of arupa jhānā leading to rebirths in the four arupāvacara Brahma realms.

  • Note: Strictly speaking, only four jhānās are described in the Tipiṭaka. The “higher jhānā” as they are known today are NOT really jhānā. They are all described in eight suttas starting with “Paṭhamajhānapañhā Sutta (SN 40.1)” through “Nevasaññānāsaññāyatanapañhā Sutta (SN 40.8).” Note that the higher four are NOT called jhānā. However, since they have very long names, it is easier to refer to them as jhānā.

8. Let us summarize the above for clarity. We know that Akusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda starts with “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra” and lead to jāti (rebirths) and eventually “the whole mass of suffering.”

  • Note that “kusalā cetanā kāmāvacarā” are “kusala kamma leading to rebirths in the kāma loka.” Similarly, “kusalā cetanā rūpāvacarā” are “kusala kamma leading to rebirths in the rupa loka,” and “kusalā cetanā arūpāvacarā” are “kusala kamma leading to rebirths in the arupa loka.” All three of them are also called “puñña kamma.”
  • That is why engaging in puñña kamma (including cultivating jhānā) is NOT ENOUGH to be released from the rebirth process and future suffering. Even though the above three types of puñña kamma lead to rebirth in the “good realms,” those existences have finite lifetimes. Rebirth in an apāyā after that is possible UNTIL comprehending the Four Noble Truths/ Paṭicca Samuppāda/Tilakkhana.
  • That is discussed in detail in “Rebirths Take Place According to Abhisaṅkhāra,” “Kilesa – Relationship to Akusala, Kusala, and Puñña Kamma,” and “Puñña Kamma – Dāna, Sīla, Bhāvanā.” It is good to review those posts to solidify the relevant concepts.

9. The “Parivīmaṁsana Sutta (SN 12.51)” summarizes those conclusions in the following verse: “Avijjāgato yaṁ, bhikkhave, purisapuggalo puññañce saṅkhāraṁ abhisaṅkharoti, puññūpagaṁ hoti viññāṇaṁApuññañce saṅkhāraṁ abhisaṅkharoti, apuññūpagaṁ hoti viññāṇaṁ. Āneñjañce saṅkhāraṁ abhisaṅkharoti āneñjūpagaṁ hoti viññāṇaṁ.”

Translated: “If one cultivates puñña abhisaṅkhāra without comprehension of Noble Truths, that will lead to rebirths in the good realms. Cultivating apuñña abhisaṅkhāra will lead to rebirths in the bad realms. With āneñja abhisaṅkhāra rebirths in the arupāvacara realms will take place.”

  • Of course, puñña abhisaṅkhāra includes the cultivation of rupāvacara jhānā. Thus, puñña abhisaṅkhāra lead to rebirths in the human realms, 6 Deva realms, and the 16 rupāvacara Brahma realms. 
  • It is interesting to note that “āneñja” means “no more rebirths” and thus “permanent.” Ancient yogis (including Alara Kalama and Uddakarama Putta) thought these realms had infinite lifetimes and equated the births there to the “ultimate release”. Of course, the Buddha discovered that those also have finite lifetimes, even though extremely long, lasting eons (billions of years). Thus, “āneñjābhi (āneñja abhi san khāra) saṅkhāra“ are also generated with avijjā.
  • Note that the word-by-word English translation in the above link does not clarify these things.
Puñña Abhisaṅkhāra Must be Cultivated

10. The Buddha taught ONLY to abstain from lobha, dosa, and moha since those will lead to rebirths in the apāyās.

  • As we know, rebirths in this world are caused by acting with lobha, dosa, moha, AND the mundane versions of alobha, adosa, and amoha (which lead to good rebirths.) 
  • With the comprehension of lokottara versions of alobha, adosa, and amoha, such puñña abhisaṅkhāra will become kusala-mula saṅkhāra (leading to Nibbāna.)
  • For details, see “Kilesa – Relationship to Akusala, Kusala, and Puñña Kamma,”
Possible Drawbacks of Cultivating Jhāna

11. The jhānic experience is the same whether it is an anariya jhānā (reached by suppressing kāma rāga) or an Ariya jhānā (reached by eliminating kāma rāga.)

  • All living beings (including those in the apāyās) have attained the highest anariya jhānās in their previous lives. Thus, such anariya jhānās do not provide relief from saṃsāric suffering. Note that at the end of a mahā kappa (with the destruction of Earth), all living beings end up in the Ābhassara Brahma  realm and remain there until the formation of a “new Earth.” See #8-#11 in the post “Buddhism and Evolution – Aggañña Sutta (DN 27).”
  • The Buddha instructed HOUSEHOLDERS to cultivate puñña abhisaṅkhāra with dāna and sila. He instructed BHIKKHUS to cultivate puñña abhisaṅkhāra with dāna, sila, and Ariya jhānā. (Of course, EVERYONE needs to comprehend the Four Nobel Truths.)
  • Householders CANNOT cultivate Ariya jhānā since that would REQUIRE abstaining from any sexual activity. If a householder is serious about attaining Ariya jhānā, they MUST give up cravings for all sense-pleasing activities, including sexual activity.
Only the Bhikkhus Instructed on the Cultivation of Jhāna

12. Read any sutta on the cultivation of jhānā, and you will see that the Buddha delivered those suttas to bhikkhus. I have not seen an instance where the Buddha instructed a householder to cultivate jhānā.

  • The standard verse in the suttas on the cultivation of jhānā is the following: “Idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu vivicceva kāmehi vivicca akusalehi dhammehi savitakkaṁ savicāraṁ vivekajaṁ pītisukhaṁ paṭhamaṁ jhānaṁ upasampajja viharati..” the translation of which is, “Here, a bhikkhu, abstaining from sensual pleasures, abstaining from akusala kamma, enters and remains in the first jhānā.”
  • The following link provides a list of Tipiṭaka references on jhānās: “531 results for vivicceva kāmehi.” Anyone can go through the suttas in that list and see whether my statements above are correct. Please let me know if you find a sutta delivered to a “householder” in the above list. Keep in mind that a few householders abstained from “householder activities” and attained jhānā. They were Anāgāmis, like Citta Gahapati. 
Jhānā Not Necessary to Attain Magga Phala

13. A householder can choose to refrain from sexual activities and cultivate Ariya jhānā. Such a householder is an “Anagārika.” Most householders who attained the Arahant stage (like King Suddodana and Minister Santati) got there without cultivating jhānā. Some bhikkhus attained the Arahant stage without cultivating jhānā (Paññāvimutti Arahants.) Those who took the “jhānic path” became Cetovimutti Arahants.

  • Householders can cultivate anariya jhānā while being a householder by suppressing kāma rāga. There is nothing wrong with that if one realizes it is not an Ariya jhānā. The problem arises when they think they have Ariya jhānā. Also, some become enamored with “jhānic pleasures” and lose focus on attaining Nibbāna.
  • Another misconception is that it is impossible to get to the Sotapanna stage without cultivating jhānā. That can easily be disproven. We know that a Sotapanna can be reborn in the human or Deva realms. However, anyone with even the first anariya jhānā will be reborn in a Brahma realm at death. Since attaining any jhānā is an ānantariya puñña kamma, such a person will be separated from the human bhava at the death of the physical body, even if there is kammic energy left in the human bhava. Thus, if a Sotapanna has even an anariya jhāna, they cannot be reborn in kāma loka. That contradicts the idea that a Sotapanna must have a jhāna.
  • The fact that only samādhi is needed to attain magga phala is also clear with the Abhidhamma analysis of relevant citta vithi; see at the end of the post “Citta Vīthi – Processing of Sense Inputs.”
  • It is critically important to understand these key concepts. Please feel free to comment/ask questions in the discussion forum.
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