Ascendance to Nibbāna via Jhāna (Dhyāna)

Jhāna and magga phala are two separate entities, but they can be related.

October 4, 2017; revised November 30,2017; November 11, 2022; October 31, 2023

1. There are four categories: One can attain magga phala without jhāna; one can attain (anariya) jhāna and not have magga phala; one can attain magga phala from any anariya jhāna; one can attain magga phala and then cultivate Ariya jhāna. To sort these out, one needs to understand the difference between Ariya (supramundane) and anāriya (mundane) jhāna and whether (and how) they are related to magga phala.

  • In a series of posts based on material from the Tipiṭaka, I will try to put together a consistent picture. 
  • Even before the Buddha, ancient yōgis cultivated jhāna and attained what they believed to be cetōvimutti (liberation via calming the mind). But the Buddha showed that such cetōvimutti is temporary; one would not attain akuppā cetōvimutti (true and unshakable liberation) until Nibbāna is realized; see, “Tapussa Sutta (AN 9.41)– Akuppā Cētōvimutti“.

2. Nibbāna can be approached two ways via jhāna: (i) through any of the rūpāvacara anāriya (mundane) jhāna, (ii) first attaining the Sōtapanna stage and then through Ariya (supramundane) jhāna.

  • Of course, there is another way to attain Nibbāna, without any jhāna, in paññāvimutti (liberation with wisdom); see below.
  • If one takes the path via Ariya jhāna., one would attain unshakable/unbreakable cētovimutti (akuppā cētovimutti.) That is what the Buddha attained on the night of the Enlightenment.
  • Those yogis who attain cētovimutti via anāriya jhāna have not removed avijjā anusaya; that is why they are not liberated. Then they can be reborn in the kāma lōka; see #4 below.

3. As the table below shows, the level of suffering decreases as one moves successively to higher realms.

  •  In the post “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma – Introduction,” we described a model that consisted of 31 concentric “shells.” The actuality is close to that analogy, with some additional features. I have compiled a summary of the 31 realms in the “31 Realms of Existence” table.
  • From those posts, it is clear that as one goes from the apāyā through higher kāma lōka to rūpa lōka and finally to arūpa lōka, attachments to “this world” get weaker AND actual suffering decreases too.
  • It seems that the highest arūpa realm is quite close to Nibbāna. In a way, it is — but technically, it is far away too.

4. Today, many English texts incorrectly label the “higher rupāvacara samāpatti” as the fifth through the eighth jhāna. In the Tipiṭaka, they are labeled as  ākāsānañcāyatana, viññāṇañcāyatana,  ākiñcaññāyatana, and nevasaññānāsaññāyatana samāpatti.

  • Yōgis like Alāra Kālāma and Uddakarāmaputta, who had attained the highest jhānā and arūpa samāpatti at the time of the Buddha, believed that the highest arūpāvacara state was Nibbāna (or final release, vimutti). Indeed, at that highest realm of Ne’va saññā nā saññā, connection to “this world” is ALMOST cutoff, and one can experience the “highest bliss” that can be attained without realizing Nibbāna.
  • The Buddha (or rather the Bōdhisattva), who learned to attain those highest jhānā and arūpa samāpatti from those yōgis, realized that all living beings had attained those states many times in the rebirth process, and that is not the end of suffering.
  • He realized that until one completely removes all ten saṁsāric bonds (see “Dasa Samyōjana – Bonds in Rebirth Process “), one will never be free of ANY of the 31 realms. As discussed in that post, one SUCCESSIVELY and PERMANENTLY leaves the lowest realms (apāyā), higher kāma lōka realms, and then rūpa and arūpa realms by breaking those bonds (samyōjana) few at a time (by following the Noble Path).

5. However, one can TEMPORARILY enjoy the highest arūpa realms’ existence by cultivating even the corresponding MUNDANE jhāna, i.e., those attained without removing ANY samyōjana.

  • For example, while we live in this human realm, we are not subjected to the harsh sufferings in the apāyā, and we can enjoy the sensory pleasures mixed in with some suffering.
  • In the same way, when one is born in the rūpa realms, one will not be subjected to the sufferings in the human realm, and the suffering is even less going from rūpa to arūpa realms.
  • However, since no samyōjana are broken, one can be reborn in any of the realms in the future (just like an average human can be born in the apāyā in the future).

6. The easiest way to understand jhānic and arūpa samāpatti states is to examine the properties of the rūpa and arūpa realms compared to those of the lower realms. The following table can be useful here.

Realm(s)Level of SufferingCauses Generation/Stopping of Saṅkhāra
Niraya (Hell)Incessant sufferingDōsa: Killing (especially humans), torture, rapes, etc
Peta (Hungry Ghosts)StarvationLobha or Excess greed (may I get all, not others)
Vinipāta Asura Spend time aimlessly; mostly heavy bodies not movableMoha : Tina middha, vicikicca (lazy, lacking wisdom).
Animal (Tirisan: "tiri" + "san" or with all 3 causes)Combinations of above three typesCombinations of lobha, dosa, moha
Human (Manussa: "mana" + "ussa" or with advanced mind)In between lower and higher realmsIn between lower and higher realmsAlmost all saṅkhāra responsible births in all realms occur here.
Deva (similar to human bodies, but much less dense)Mostly no physical suffering and abundant sense pleasures (kāma). But there is mental stress.Good kamma vipāka (done with alobha, adosa, amoha). Mental stress arises due to kama raga.
Rupāvacara Brahma (only manomaya kāya; cannot be even seen with a microscope)Mental stress is much reduced. Mainly jhanic pleasures. Viparinama dukha when close death.Suppression of kāma rāga and cultivation of rupāvacara jhāna (while in the human realm)
Arupāvacara Brahma (only hadaya vatthu and mind)Only arupavacara samāpatti. Viparinama dukha when close death.Cultivation of arupāvacara samāpatti (while in the human realm)
NibbānaPermanent release from all suffering.Elimination of all causes for existence, i.e., rāgakkhaya, dosakkhaya, mohakkhaya.Mostly attained in the human realm, but possible in higher realms, especially after the Sotapanna stage.

7. If you look at any sutta describing Ariya jhāna, it always starts with the verse, “..bhikkhu vivicceva kāmehi vivicca akusalehi dhammehi savitakkaṃ savicāraṃ vivekajaṃ pītisukhaṃ paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ upasampajja viharati..”

We can see why the above table helps understand how one gets to jhānās by abstaining from akusala kamma (vivicca akusalēhi dhammēhi) and kāma rāga (vivicceva kāmēhi).

  • Until one overcomes kāma rāga (at least temporarily), one has no hope of escaping the kāma loka and ascending to the rūpāvacara realms.
  • However, one does not need to REMOVE kāma rāga anusaya to attain mundane (anāriya) jhāna, even up to the highest in the arūpa lōka; suppression of kāma rāga is enough. This is why Alara Kalama and Uddaka Rama Putta, who are in the arūpa realms right now, could even be reborn in the apāyā in future lives.
  • All one needs to do is to have the mind focused on a neutral object to make the mind free of akusala thoughts and kāma rāga while in the jhāna.

8. We can summarize the above conclusions in the following way:

  • One frequently engaged in akusala kamma is LIKELY to be born in the four lowest realms (apāyā).
  • One who abstains from akusala kamma and abstains from sensual pleasures (Alara Kalama and Uddaka Rama Putta) can cultivate rūpāvacara jhāna or arūpāvacara samāpatti. Since they are mahāggata kusala kamma (mahāggata means higher), one WILL be reborn in rūpa or arūpa lōka at the death of this physical body BEFORE the next cuti-paṭisandhi transition. Getting to even an anariya jhāna is ānantarika kamma.
  • However, if it is an anāriya jhāna or arūpāvacara samāpatti, one has not been released from the apāyā since one has not removed avijjā by comprehending Tilakkhana.

9. One can get to the first anāriya jhāna by focusing on a fixed mundane object (breath or a kasina object).

  • When one does this for long periods and also abstains from sensual pleasures (like ancient yōgis did), one can get into the first jhāna, followed by successively higher jhāna, when one practice for longer times.
  • Conventional breath meditation is a kasina meditation since it focuses on the breath.

10. This is how all living beings in the lower realms get into the Abhassara Brahma realm when our world system (Cakkavata) is destroyed in a “lōka vināsaya.” When the Sun starts heating up, fine sense objects start being destroyed, and less sensual objects will be there to trigger kāma rāga. All humans and animals will move to higher realms (over an antakkappa which lasts billions of years).

  • When the human and animal realms are destroyed, all those beings would be reborn in the first rūpa realms. When that is gradually destroyed, they will be reborn in the next higher realm, and so on, until they are all in the Abhassara realm.
  • Even though all dense material realms are destroyed at the destruction of the Sun and the Earth, all rūpa and arūpa realms at or above the Abhassara realm remain intact. When the Solar system is “re-formed” after billions of years, they all gradually come down to lower realms. See “Buddhism and Evolution – Aggañña Sutta (DN 27).”
  • Just like none of those living beings had removed their anusaya (or broken the samyōjana), one engaged in mundane jhānā has not removed them either.

11. On the other hand, one gets to the first Ariya jhāna by focusing on the “cooling down” (Nibbāna) one has seen. This is usually done by reciting/contemplating the verse “etaṃ santaṃ etaṃ paṇītaṃ…” and also recalling one’s own experience of Nibbāna (cooling down).

  • The best example from the Tipiṭaka is Ven. Moggallana. We all know that Ven. Moggallana (Kolita before becoming a bhikkhu) attained the Sōtapanna stage upon hearing a single verse by Ven. Assaji and then conveyed to him by Upatissa.
  • Then Kolita (and Upatissa) went to see the Buddha and were ordained. It took them a week to two weeks to attain Arahanthood. The Moggallana Samyutta in the Samyutta Nikāya has nine suttā that describe step-by-step how Ven. Moggallana attained Ariya jhānā one by one, starting with the first Ariya jhāna. Thus it is pretty clear that the Sōtapanna stage comes before any Ariya (supramundane) jhāna.
  • In particular, the very first sutta there describes how the Buddha came to him by iddhi bala and encouraged him to cultivate the first Ariya jhāna (Paṭha­ma­jhāna­ Pañhā­ Sutta; SN 40.1):  “..Atha kho maṃ, āvuso, bhagavā iddhiyā upasaṅkamitvā etadavoca: ‘moggallāna, moggallāna. Mā, brāhmaṇa, paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ pamādo, paṭhame jhāne cittaṃ saṇṭhapehi, paṭhame jhāne cittaṃ ekodiṃ karohi, paṭhame jhāne cittaṃ samādahā’ti..” OR “..the Buddha came to me by iddhi bala and told me: Moggallana, Moggallana, Brahmana, do not become delayed, cultivate the first jhāna..”.
  • The subsequent suttās in the Moggallana Samyutta describe how the Buddha instructed him through each successive rūpāvacara and arūpāvacara jhāna up to nirōdha samāpatti, where Ven. Moggallana developed all iddhi bala and became second only to the Buddha in supernormal powers.

12. Thus, one needs to be an Anāgāmi to attain the first Ariya jhāna because one needs to remove kāma rāga anusaya to get to even the first Ariya jhāna; see, for example, “Jhāna Sutta (Anguttara Nikāya 9.36)“. See “Pannāvimutti – Arahanthood without Jhāna.”

  • This means one is essentially an Anāgami by the time one is fully absorbed in the first Ariya jhāna. But a Sōtapanna could be in the vicinity of the first Ariya jhāna. There are three levels for a given jhāna: hīna (weak), majjhima (middle), and panīta (strong).
  • After that, one gets to higher Ariya jhānās by doing vipassanā (insight meditation) on the anicca nature of that jhāna that one is already in, i.e., by eliminating successive jhāna factors OR one may be able to attain Nibbāna directly form there; see, “Sallekha Sutta (MN 8)“.
  • Since any jhāna is associated with either a rūpa realm or an arūpa realm, those states are subject to the anicca nature, just like everything else that belongs to this world of 31 realms.

13. Those who have higher wisdom can attain even the Arahant stage before getting to any jhāna or from lower Ariya or anāriya jhāna; they are called paññāvimutti Arahants. They may cultivate (Ariya) jhāna after the Arahanthood to seek relief until the end of their current life. Jhānic pleasures are the only “pleasures” recommended by the Buddha; of course, they are not sensory pleasures belonging to kāma lōka.

  • For example, minister Santati attained Arahanthood without any jhāna; he had just returned from fighting a war! See #4 of “Pannāvimutti – Arahanthood without Jhāna” for more examples. They are paññāvimutti Arahants.
  • On the other hand, some go through the Ariya jhānās to attain Arahanthood, as Ven Moggalana did; see #11 above.) Such Arahants are called “liberated both ways” or ubhatovimutti Arahants.

14. A question arises as to whether one can get into anāriya jhāna while cultivating Ariya jhāna, i.e., while following kammaṭṭhāna that are based on contemplating the Tilakkhana and taking Nibbāna as the ārammana. The unknown factor here is whether the meditator is really focused on those things.

  • Therefore, that is a question that can be answered only by the person in question. Just because one is reciting Ariya kammaṭṭhāna does not necessarily mean one will get to Ariya jhāna. What matters is whether one has attained the Sōtapanna stage first because one needs to keep Nibbāna as the arammana, not a worldly object (even light).
  • We know that Devadatta, who had cultivated anāriya jhāna AND attained iddhi powers, finally ended up in an apāya. Even though he had been exposed to the correct interpretation of Tilakkhana, he had not grasped them.
  • The best way to confirm is the following: If one has attained the first Ariya jhāna, one would have removed kāma rāga anusaya. Watch an adult movie and see whether sensual (sexual) thoughts arise!

15. However, anāriya jhāna cannot be labeled as “bad.” They belong to higher (rupāvacara) mental states, and those who have cultivated anāriya jhāna will have an easier time attaining magga phala. One needs to contemplate the anicca nature of jhānic states.

  • One can attain any magga phala up to full Nibbāna (Arahanthood) from ANY of the anāriya jhāna. This is how the 89 cittas become 121 citta; see “The 89 (121) Types of Citta“.

16. The critical question is, “If mundane and supramundane jhāna seem to have similar characteristics that one feels, then how does one determine whether one has attained mundane or supramundane jhāna?

  • As we saw above, one gets to the first Ariya jhāna by REMOVING kāma rāga, not just by suppressing as in anāriya jhāna, i.e., one is essentially an Anāgami if one can be fully absorbed in the first Ariya jhāna.
  • While it may not be straightforward to determine whether one is a Sōtapanna or not, it is relatively easy to determine whether one is an Anāgami, who has removed all kāma rāga: one’s CRAVING for ALL sensory pleasures (food, music, sex, etc.) should not be there anymore. This DOES NOT mean, for example, that one should not eat tasty foods or that one will not taste the sweetness of sugar. But one will not have the urge to drink or to engage in sex, for example.

17. Finally, a common problem is that some people get attached to mundane jhānic pleasures and get trapped there (for some, even a state of calmness is enough!). They must realize that anāriya (mundane) jhānic states belong to this world. Until those bonds to a given realm in this world are removed, one would remain in the rebirth process (and thus, future suffering in the apāyā is not eliminated). We have attained the highest anāriya jhānā numerous times in our deep past.

  • Those who can quickly get into anāriya (mundane) jhāna can do so most likely because they had cultivated jhāna in recent lives, possibly in the current human bhava.
  • Furthermore, those who cannot get into even anāriya (mundane) jhāna should not be concerned. It could just be that they had not cultivated jhāna in recent births. As discussed above, jhānas are not necessary to attain magga phala. Thus, some people may have even attained the Sōtapanna stage but may be stressed unnecessarily because of their inability to get into jhāna.

The basic layout was presented in this post. Further details at “Samādhi, Jhāna (Dhyāna), Magga Phala.”

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