Mundane versus Supramundane Jhāna

October 12, 2017; revised February 9, 2018; June 17, 2022; rewritten November 16, 2022; revised January 31, 2023

Here we will discuss three critical suttās from the Tipiṭaka to resolve controversial arguments about mundane (anariya) and supramundane (Ariyajhāna.  

  • The post “Tapussa Sutta (AN 9.41)– Akuppā Cētōvimutti” clearly explains the difference between Ariya and anariya jhāna.
  • It is interesting to note that some suttā do not specifically label jhāna as Ariya or anariyaOne has to read a given sutta carefully to figure out which jhāna are discussed, but the conclusion always is that anariya jhāna are worthless by themselves unless used as a platform to attain magga phala; see, “Samādhi, Jhāna, Magga Phala – Introduction.”
  • The “Pathama Metta Sutta” also discusses the critical differences between Ariya and anariya jhāna. It shows that a Sōtapanna can cultivate anariya jhāna (i.e., without removing kāma rāga) and be born in lower Brahma realms. However, unlike those with anariya jhāna without magga phala, that person will not return to kāma lōka.
  • Only four jhāna (five according to Abhidhamma analysis) are discussed in the Tipiṭaka. Today, many English texts incorrectly label the “higher arupāvacara samāpatti” as the fifth through the eighth jhāna. In the Tipiṭaka, they are labeled as ākāsānañcāyatana, viññāṇañcāyatana,  ākiñcaññāyatana, and nevasaññānāsaññāyatana samāpatti and NOT jhānic states.

1. The main characteristics and purposes of Ariya (supermundane) jhāna are described in detail in the “jhāna Sutta (Anguttara Nikāya 9.36)“. The English translation (Mental Absorption) at that site is not good, so I will translate most of the sutta here. However, the Sinhala Translation ( ඣානනිස්සයන සූත්‍රය) is much better; of course, anicca and anatta are mistranslated there too.

  • I will use critical Pāli terms without translating since anyone reading the post will likely understand them. I think that would make it easier to read.

2. Now, I will translate the sutta, and the numbers below correspond to the paragraphs in the Pāli version: “jhāna Sutta (Anguttara Nikāya 9.36)“.

#1. Bhikkhus, I will state the removal of āsava (mental fermentations) via the first jhāna, second jhāna, third jhāna, fourth jhāna, ākāsānañ­cāyata­na, viñ­ñā­ṇañ­cāyata­na, ākiñ­cañ­ñā­yatana, neva­saññā­nā­sañ­ñāyata­na, saññā­ve­dayi­ta­nirodha (the last four are the arūpavacara samāpatti states). Also, I have minimized wording to keep the paragraph short, just giving the meaning.

  • Thus the primary purpose of jhānic states is to do insight meditation and remove āsava, not to enjoy that jhānic “pleasure” or relief. Nibbāna is attained via the removal of āsava:The Way to Nibbāna – Removal of Āsavā.”
  • There is a lot of important information in the next paragraph.

#2. Bhikkhus, I declare the removal of āsava (mental fermentations) via the first jhāna. On account of what do I say that?  A bhikkhu abstaining from sense pleasures (vivicceva kāmehi), abstaining from akusala, arrives in the vicinity of the first jhāna (upasampajja viharati). He thus contemplates the anicca nature (aniccatō), dukkha nature (dukkhato), disease-ridden nature (rogatō), cancer-like nature (gandatō), arrow-like nature (sallatō), painful (aghatō), danger-ridden (ābādhatō), alien (paratō), subject to destruction (palokatō), an empty (suññatō), not-fruitful and leading to helplessness (anattō) OF rūpa, vedana, sanna, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa (rūpagataṃ vedanāgataṃ saññāgataṃ saṅkhārāgataṃ viññāṇagataṃ). He turns his mind away from those phenomena and, having done so, inclines his mind to Nibbāna: ‘etaṃ santaṃ etaṃ paṇītaṃ yadidaṃ sabba­saṅ­khā­ra­sama­tho sabbū­padhipa­ṭi­nissaggo taṇhākkhayo virāgo nirodho nibbānan’ti. Thus he gets rid of āsava. Suppose he does not complete the removal of āsava. In that case, he will remove the first five samyōjana and thus be born opapatika (in Brahma loka) and attain parinibbāna there. He will not return to this world (“No ce āsavānaṃ khayaṃ pāpuṇāti, teneva dhammarāgena tāya dhammanandiyā pañcannaṃ orambhāgiyānaṃ saṃyojanānaṃ parikkhayā opapātiko hoti tattha parinibbāyī anāvattidhammo tasmā lokā”).

  • Thus one cannot attain Ariya jhāna without comprehending the anicca, dukkha, and anatta nature of the pancakkhandha.
  • The standard verse, “..(pathamam) jhānam upasampajja viharati..” is commonly translated as, “..enters and remains in the (first) jhāna..”. However, “upasampajja viharati” (“upa” + “san” + “pajja“) means “abiding in the vicinity of clarifying and removing ‘san‘”; of course, ‘san‘ are lōbha, dōsa, mōha, or āsava. The prefix “upa” means “near or close.” For example, “upasampadā” (“upa” + “san” + “padā“)means a bhikkhu has advanced and is getting close to “sorting out ‘san‘ and thus to magga phala.
  • Now, let us recapture the three critical steps in the above paragraph: First, one gets to the jhāna by contemplating a long list of faults (ādinava) of the five aggregates rūpa, vedana, sanna, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa that make up one’s world; see, “The Five Aggregates (Pancakkhandha).”
  • Once one gets to the vicinity of the first jhāna, one can intensify it and be fully absorbed in it by contemplating the relief that is already seen: ‘etaṃ santaṃ etaṃ paṇītaṃ yadidaṃ sabba­saṅ­khā­ra­sama­tho sabbū­padhipa­ṭi­nissaggo taṇhākkhayo virāgo nirodho nibbānan’ti. This is the extra effort involved in cultivating the jhāna versus pannāvimutti path.
  • Thirdly, one can get to the higher jhāna by again contemplating the faults (ādīnava) of the five aggregates.

#3. “Bhikkhus, suppose an archer or archer’s apprentice practice on a straw man or mound of clay. After a while, he could shoot long distances, fire accurate shots in rapid succession, and pierce great masses; in the same way, a bhikkhu abstaining from sensuality, abstaining from akusala, arrives in the vicinity (upasampajja) of the first jhāna.”

  • The rest is essentially the same as in #2 above from that point onward about how āsava are removed by contemplating those faults (ādīnava) of the five aggregates, to the following confirmation statement at the end of the paragraph to emphasize the following: “Bhikkhus, I surely declare removal of āsava (mental fermentations) via the first jhāna.”

#4. This paragraph repeats the same paragraph of #2 above for the second, third, and fourth jhāna. It is interesting that even at the fourth jhāna, one could only be guaranteed to become an Anāgami. However, as mentioned in #2, one could attain Arahanthood even from the first jhāna if all āsava are removed. That holds for any jhāna through the fourth.

#5. The same verse as #3 is repeated for the second, third, and fourth jhāna, with the paragraph ending, “..Bhikkhus, I surely declare the removal of āsava (mental fermentations) via the fourth jhāna“.

#6 , #7. The paragraphs in #2 and #3 for the first jhāna are now repeated for the first arūpavacara samāpatti: ākāsānañ­cāyata­na.

#8 , #9. The paragraphs in #2 and #3 for the first jhāna are now repeated for the second and third arūpavacara samāpatti: viñ­ñā­ṇañ­cāyata­na and  ākiñ­cañ­ñā­yatana.  Again, it is interesting that even at such higher arūpavacra jhānā, one could only be guaranteed to become an Anāgami.

#10.  “As for the two saññāsamāpatti āyatananeva­saññā­ nā ­sañ­ñāyata­na ­samā­patti and saññā­ve­dayi­ta­nirodho – they remove āsava and will lead to the faultless state of Nibbāna.”

  • Thus if one gets to the highest arūpavacra (Ariya) samāpatti, one will attain the Arahantship and also will be able to get to nirodha samāpatti (saññā­ve­dayi­ta­nirodho).

3. That is, in essence, the complete sutta, which provides many key insights that have been hidden surprisingly. I almost fell off my chair when I first read it. I am unsure how and why modern translators failed to understand the importance of this sutta.

4. We can learn a lot of critical aspects of Ariya jhāna from this critical sutta. Let us begin with the fact that one gets to the vicinity (upasampajja) of the first jhāna by contemplating the faults (ādīnava) of pancakkhandha (rūpa, vedana, sanna, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa); once getting there, one further removes āsava by the same process. 

  • Thus, one gets to jhāna with insight meditation (Vipassanā) on the unsuitability (faults of) kāmavacara states, and then once getting to jhāna, starts doing Vipassanā on the unsuitability of any jhānic state to transcend that state.
  • There is a long list of such faults (ādīnava) (from #1): anicca nature (aniccatō), dukkha nature (dukkhato), disease-ridden nature (rogatō), cancer-like nature (gandatō), arrow-like nature (sallatō), painful (aghatō), danger-ridden (ābādhatō), alien (paratō), subject to destruction (palokatō), an empty (suññatō), not-fruitful and leading to helplessness (anattō)

5. Therefore, the main goal at any given Ariya jhāna is to contemplate all those faults (ādīnava) of that state — and move to the next higher state. If a Noble Person goes through the four rupāvacara jhānic states, all arupāvacara samāpatti up to the nēva saññā nā saññā and attains Nibbāna, they are said to have attained akuppā cetovimutti. See “Nirōdha Samāpatti, Phala Samāpatti, Jhāna, and Jhāna Samāpatti.”

  • Of course, one could remove all āsava and attain Nibbāna from any lower jhāna.
  • If one attains Nibbāna from a lower jhānic state (below the highest arūpavacara samāpatti), one is said to attain pannāvimutti.
  • While the word “jhāna” has come to everyday use, a better word is “dhyāna” (ඣාන in Pāli and දැවීම in Sinhala, meaning “burning”).
  • We will stick with the word “jhāna” instead of “dhyana” since it is commonly used. It is just helpful to know where the meaning comes from.

6. One can think clearly in any jhāna. Even intermittent vitakka/vicāra (“wheeling around” with stray thoughts) will be absent after the second jhāna, i.e., one is in the avitakka/avicāra (free of vitakka/vicāra) mode after the second jhāna; I will discuss jhānanga or jhāna factors in a future post.

  • This is why Ariya jhāna is helpful in insight (Vipassanā) meditation. The mind becomes calm when more and more saṅkhāra are removed as one proceeds to higher jhāna (and samāpatti) states.

7. Even though the relief experienced in Ariya jhāna is the only “enjoyment” recommended by the Buddha, that is not the primary purpose of Ariya jhāna. That is because if one gets attached to a jhāna, one cannot move up to the higher one. In any case, it is mainly those who get to anariya jhāna who get attached to them (however, it is possible to attain any stage of magga phala even with anariya jhāna or even without any jhāna). If one has seen the anicca nature, one will not get attached to a jhāna.

8. Pancanīvarana are also completely removed at the first Ariya jhāna. From the Mahāve­dalla Sutta (MN 43): “.. Idhāvuso, paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ samāpannāssa bhikkhuno kāmacchando pahīno hoti, byāpādo pahīno hoti, thinamiddhaṃ pahīnaṃ hoti, uddhac­ca­kukkuc­caṃ pahīnaṃ hoti, vicikicchā pahīnā hoti..”.

  • Many suttā clearly state such conditions for the first supramundane jhāna.
  • In contrast, neither the five samyōjana nor the pancanīvarana is removed in any mundane jhāna. The reasons are apparent: none of the kilesa (klēsha/defilements) can be removed by taking a neutral object as the ārammana.

9. This is why the Buddha told Ven. Saddha: “..“Ājānī­ya­jhāyi­taṃ kho, saddha, jhāya; mā kha­ḷuṅ­ka­jhāyi­taṃ..”, OR “Saddha, cultivate the ajānīya (thoroughbred horse) jhānanot the khalunka (mule) jhāna“: Saddha Sutta (Anguttara Nikāya 11.9).

  • In the Sutta Central translation,  khalunka is a colt (a young horse). But the correct translation is a mule. As described in the sutta, a mule is lazy and useless compared to a thoroughbred horse.
  • As described in the sutta, one who cultivates mundane jhāna takes worldly objects (kasina, breath) as ārammana, and even though they can attain jhāna, they will not have the respect of the devas who can see the ārammana.
  • On the other hand, devas cannot see the ārammana (Nibbāna) of those who have cultivated Ariya jhāna, and they pay to him from a distance.

10. Therefore, there is a HUGE difference in HOW one arrives at a given jhāna.

  • One using the anariya path gets to jhānā by focusing one’s mind on a mundane object, i.e., an object belonging to this world (for example, one’s breath or a kasina object) and/or by contemplating mundane moral thoughts (benevolent, kind, etc.); we will discuss this in the next post.
  • On the other hand, one on the Noble Path reaches a jhāna by contemplating Nibbāna, i.e., the anicca, dukkha, and anatta nature of this world of 31 realms. 
  • However, jhāna sukha is the only sukha recommended by the Buddha since sensory pleasures will bind one to the kāma loka. It is said that some pannāvimutta Arahants cultivate jhāna after attaining Arahanthood.

11. Also, see the previous post where it is discussed how Ven. Moggallana cultivated the first jhāna after attaining the Sōtapanna stage: “Ascendance to Nibbāna via Jhāna (dhyāna). “

  • One who can get fully absorbed in the first Ariya jhāna will be born in the Suddhāvāsa realms of the rūpa loka, and will not come back to the kāma loka, i.e., one is an Anāgami, as clearly stated in the Jhāna Sutta and several other suttas.
  • On the other hand, one who cultivates mundane first jhāna will be born in the first rūpavacara Brahma realm in the next birth, but in later rebirths, could even be born in the apāyā (since kāma rāga was only suppressed, not removed).

12. One can get into mundane (anariya) jhāna via breath or kasina meditation, and one could do Vipassanā from mundane jhānic states.

  • But the problem is that people get addicted to those states and cannot see their anicca nature.

13. In addition to the above suttā (and more that I found) on Ariya jhāna, I found other suttā that discussed anariya jhāna. In none of these suttās was a specific label saying Ariya jhāna or anariya jhāna. However, one can see which is which when reading text.

  • In the following reference, it is clearly stated that kāma rāga is only suppressed (vikkhambhanato) in all rūpavācara and arūpavācara jhāna. On the other hand, it states that kāma rāga is removed (samucchedato) in stages via magga phala.
  • The difference between vikkhambhana pahāna and samuccheda pahāna is discussed in “Suffering in This Life – Role of Mental Impurities.”

The following are the two relevant passages from the Khuddaka Nikāya, Mahāniddesa, Aṭṭhakavagga1. Kāma­sutta­niddesa . There is no English translation there, but the Sinhala translation is given: කාම සූත්‍ර නිර්දෙශය.

Paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ bhāventopi vikkhambhanato kāme parivajjeti … pe … dutiyaṃ jhānaṃ bhāventopi … tatiyaṃ jhānaṃ bhāventopi … catutthaṃ jhānaṃ bhāventopi … ākāsānañ­cāyata­na­samā­pattiṃ bhāventopi … viñ­ñā­ṇañ­cāyata­na­samā­pattiṃ bhāventopi … ākiñ­cañ­ñā­yatana­samā­pattiṃ bhāventopi … neva­saññā­nā­saññāya­tana­samā­pattiṃ bhāventopi vikkhambhanato kāme parivajjeti. Evaṃ vikkhambhanato kāme parivajjeti.

  • Translated: kāma” is suppressed (vikkhambhanatoin the first jhāna, …to neva­saññā­nā­saññāya­tana (highest arūpavācara samāpatti). As we saw above, kāma is removed even before getting to the first Ariya jhāna. Thus, only anariya (mundane) jhāna are meant here.
  • See “Tapussa Sutta (AN 9.41)– Akuppā Cētōvimutti” for another example.

Kathaṃ samucchedato kāme parivajjeti? Sotā­patti­maggaṃ bhāventopi apāyagamanīye kāme samucchedato parivajjeti, sakadā­gāmi­maggaṃ bhāventopi oḷārike kāme samucchedato parivajjeti, anāgāmimaggaṃ bhāventopi anusahagate kāme samucchedato parivajjeti, arahattamaggaṃ bhāventopi sabbena sabbaṃ sabbathā sabbaṃ asesaṃ nissesaṃ samucchedato kāme parivajjeti. Evaṃ samucchedato kāme parivajjetīti—yo kāme parivajjeti.

  • Translated:kāma” is removed (samucchedatoin stages via the Sotāpanna, Sakadā­gāmi stages and is removed at the Anāgami stage; it is removed without a trace at the Arahant stage.

14. The following sutta clearly states the difference between Ariya and anariya jhānā.

Paṭhamanānākaraṇa Sutta (AN 4. 123): “ Idha, bhikkhave, ekacco puggalo vivicceva kāmehi vivicca akusalehi dhammehi savitakkaṃ savicāraṃ vivekajaṃ pītisukhaṃ paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ upasampajja viharati. So tadassādeti, taṃ nikāmeti, tena ca vittiṃ āpajjāti. Tattha ṭhito tadadhimutto tabbahula-vihārī aparihīno kālaṃ kurumāno brahmakāyikānaṃ devānaṃ sahabyataṃ upapajjāti. Brahmakāyikānaṃ, bhikkhave, devānaṃ kappo āyuppamāṇaṃ. Tattha puthujjano yāvatāyukaṃ ṭhatvā yāvatakaṃ tesaṃ devānaṃ āyuppamāṇaṃ taṃ sabbaṃ khepetvā nirayampi gacchati tiracchānayonimpi gacchati pettivisayampi gacchati. Bhagavato pana sāvako tattha yāvatāyukaṃ ṭhatvā yāvatakaṃ tesaṃ devānaṃ āyuppamāṇaṃ taṃ sabbaṃ khepetvā tasmiṃyeva bhave parinibbāyati. Ayaṃ kho, bhikkhave, viseso ayaṃ adhippayāso idaṃ nānākaraṇaṃ sutavato ariyasāvakassa assutavatā puthujjanena, yadidaṃ gatiyā upapattiyā sati.”

Translated: “There is the case where an individual, withdrawn from sensuality (kāma), withdrawn from akusala, enters & remains in the first jhāna: rapture & pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. He savors that, longs for that, and finds satisfaction through that. Staying there—fixed on that, dwelling there often, not losing the jhāna—then when he dies, he is born with the devas of Brahma’s retinue. The devas of Brahma’s retinue, monks, have a life span of an eon. A run-of-the-mill person, having stayed there, having used up all the life-span of those devas, goes to hell, to the animal realm, or the state of the hungry ghosts. But a disciple of the Blessed One, having stayed there, having used up all the life-span of those devas, attains Parinibbāna. This, monks, is the difference, this the distinction, this the distinguishing factor, between a Noble disciple and a normal person who had not heard the Noble Truths (assutavatā puthujjanena), in regards to the gati and birth.”

  • When one attains the first Ariya jhāna, one has become an Anāgāmi. He/she will be born in that Brahma realm and attain Parinibbāna there, as stated in the above sutta.
  • In other words, kāma rāga must be REMOVED entirely to get to the first Ariya jhāna. It is only temporarily suppressed (vikkhambana pahāna) for the anariya jhāna.
  • Sotapanna who gets to the first anariya jhāna has not removed kāma rāga. But he/she will not come back to the kāma loka (will get the Anāgāmi phala moment in the Brahma loka and attain Nibbāna there). So, he/she is still an Anāgāmi (“na” + “āgami” or not coming back).
  • Even some followers of Waharaka Thēro in Sri Lanka do not seem to understand this point. However, Waharaka Thēro has explained this in the following short dēsana (in Sinhala):  “Ariya and Anariya Jhana. “
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