Ascendance to Nibbāna via Jhāna (Dhyāna)

October 4, 2017; #14 revised on October 5, 2017

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

  • In a series of posts based on material from the Tipitaka, I will try to put together a consistent picture. Please let me know ([email protected]) if I make any mistakes, because this is of great importance to everyone.
  • 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.

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

  • Of course there is another way attain Nibbāna, without any jhāna, in pannāvimutti (liberation with wisdom); see below.

3. As the table below shows, the level of suffering decreases AND levels of both mundane and nirāmisa sukha increases 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 pretty much close to that analogy, with some additional features. I have compiled a summary of the 31 realms in the table “31 Realms of Existence“.
  • From those posts, it is clear that as one goes from the apāyas 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. Yōgis like Alāra Kālāma and Uddakarāmaputta, who had attained highest arūpa jhānas at the time of the Buddha, believed that the highest arūpavacara 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 jhānas from those yōgis, realized that all living beings had attained those state many times in the rebirth process, and that is not the end of suffering.
  • He realized that until one completely removes all ten samsaric 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 (apāyas), 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 apāyas, and we can enjoy the sense 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 a normal human can be born in the apāyas in the future).

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

Realm(s)Level of SufferingCauses Generation/Stopping of Sankhara
Niraya (Hell)Incessant sufferingDōsa: Killing (especially humans), torture, rapes, etc
Peta (Hungry Ghosts)StarvationExcess greed (may I get all, not others)
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 sankhara 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 vipaka (done with alobha, adosa, amoha). Mental stress arises due to kama raga.
Rupavacara Brahma (only manomaya kaya; cannot be even seen with a microscope)Mental stress is much reduced. Mainly jhanic pleasures. Viparinama dukha when close death.Suppression of kama raga and cultivation of rupavacara jhana (while in the human realm)
Arupavacara Brahma (only hadaya vatthu and mind)Only arupavacara jhanic pleasures. Viparinama dukha when close death.Cultivation of arupavacara jhana (while in the human realm)
NibbanaPermanent release from all suffering.Elimination of all causes for existence, i.e., ragakkhaya, 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 jhana, it always starts with verse, “..bhikkhu vivicceva kāmehi vivicca akusalehi dhammehi savitakkaṃ savicāraṃ vivekajaṃ pītisukhaṃ paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ upasampajja viharati..”

We can see why the above table is helpful in understanding how one gets to jhānas by first abstaining from akusala kamma (vivicca akusalēhi dhammēhi) and then kāma rāga (vivicceva kāmēhi).

  • Until one abstains from akusala kamma, one has no hope of escaping the apayas. Here abstaining does not mean complete removal.
  • Until one overcomes kāma rāga, one has no hope of escaping the kama loka and ascending to the rūpavacara realms.
  • However, one does not need to REMOVE kāma rāga (with anusaya) in order to attain mundane (anāriya) jhāna, even up to the highest in the arūpa lōka. This is why Alara Kalama and Uddaka Rama Putta, who are in the arūpa realms right now, could be even reborn in the apāyas in future lives.
  • All one needs to do is to have the mind focused on a neutral object in order to make it free of akusala thoughts and kāma rāga while in the jhāna.

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

  • One who is frequently engaged in akusala kamma is LIKELY to be born in the 4 lowest realms (apāyas).
  • One who is frequently engaged in kusala kamma, AND avoids akusala kamma, but has kāmaccanda, is LIKELY to be born in the human or the deva realms.
  • One who abstains from akusala kamma and kāmaccanda, can cultivate rūpavacara or arūpavacara jhāna. With those mahaggata kusala kamma (mahaggata means higher), one WILL be reborn in rūpa or arūpa lōka in the next birth (since it is an ānantariya “good” kamma). However, one has not been released from the apāyas, since one has not removed avijja by comprehending Tilakkhana.

9. If one can stay away from akusala and also suppress kāma rāga, then one’s mind AUTOMATICALLY moves to  higher mental states. In other words, one starts feeling jhānic pleasures (“sankhāra paccayā viññāna“).

  • When one is striving to discard kāma rāga, one is said to be cultivating mahaggata kusala kamma. Here one goes beyond mundane moral actions (punna kamma) of giving, helping, etc, and lose (or suppress) craving for kāma rāga.
  • Therefore, while kusala kamma lead to rebirth in higher kāma lōka (human and deva realms), mahaggata kusala kamma lead to rebirth in rūpa and arūpa lōka. One of course experiences those jhānic states in this life as well.
  • The jhānic experiences experienced by yōgis correspond to various rūpa and arūpa realms; see, “31 Realms of Existence“. It is like one is born in the corresponding brahma realm for the duration of the jhānic experience.

10. Mahaggata kusala kamma can be cultivated using Ariya (supramundane) or anāriya (mundane) meditation techniques, and get to the same mental states (the difference is in how one gets there and how permanent those states are).

  • Now it is easy to see that the key to cultivating the first mundane jhāna is to stay away from akusala and also to suppress sense cravings. Then one’s mind will automatically pointed to the first rūpavacara mental state, i.e., first jhāna.

11. One can get to the first anāriya jhāna by maintaining one’s attention on a fixed mundane object (breath or a kasina object).

  • When one does this for long periods of time and also abstains from sensual pleasures (like ancient yōgis did), one can get in to the first jhāna, followed by successively higher jhāna, when one practices for longer times.
  • The conventional breath meditation is a form of kasina mediation, since it focuses on the breath.

12. In fact, 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 with time less and less sensual objects will be there to trigger kāma rāga. All humans and animal 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 all destroyed at the end of the lōka vinasaya, 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. I will discuss this in more detail when I start explaining the Agganna Sutta.
  • Just like none of those living beings had removed their anusaya (or broken the samyōjana), one engaged in mundane jhānas has not removed them either.

13. On the other hand, one gets to the first Ariya jhāna by focusing on the “cooling down” (Nibbāna) that one has seen. This is normally done by reciting/contemplating the verse “ētan santan ētan paneetan…”, and also recalling one’s own experience of Nibbāna (cooling down).

The best example from the Tipitaka is Ven. Moggallana. We all know that Ven.Moggallana (who was Kolita before becoming a bhikkhu), attained the Sōtapanna stage upon hearing a single verse uttered 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 the Arahanthood. The Moggallana Samyutta in the Samyutta Nikaya has 9 suttas that describe step-by-step how Ven. Moggallana attained Ariya jhānas one by one starting with the first Ariya jhāna. Thus it is quite 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 suttas in the Moggallana Samyutta describe how the Buddha instructed him through each successive rūpavacara and arūpavacara jhāna all the up to nirōdha samāpatti, where Ven. Moggallana developed all iddhi bala and became second only to the Buddha in supernormal powers.

14. Thus, one needs to be at least a Sōtapanna in order to start cultivating Ariya jhāna. However, one will truly be in the first Ariya jhāna only when one has REMOVED kāma rāga; see, for example, “Jhāna Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya 9.36)“. We will discuss this in detail in the next post.

  • 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), majjima (middle), and panīta (strong).
  • After that one gets to higher Ariya jhānas by doing vipassana (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.
  • 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 belong to this world of 31 realms.

15. 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 pannāvimutti Arahants. They may cultivate (Ariya) jhāna after the Arahanthood, in order to seek relief until the end of the current life. jhānic pleasures are the only “pleasures” recommended by the Buddha; of course, they are not sense pleasures belonging to kāma lōka.

  • It is said that those Arahants can cultivate all Ariya jhāna (and become cetōvimutti as well) and then get into nirōdha samāpatti, where full Nibbanic bliss can be experienced for up to 7 days at a time.
  • Such Arahants are called “liberated both ways” or ubhatovimutti.

16. A question arises as to whether one can get into anāriya jhāna while cultivating Ariya jhāna, i.e., while following kammatthana 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 kammatthana does not necessarily mean one will get to Ariya jhāna. What really 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. This was despite the fact that he had been exposed to the correct interpretation of Tilakkhana; apparently he had not grasped them.
  • I will discuss more on this in the next post, where I will present evidence from the Tipitaka itself to make things clear.

17. However, anāriya jhāna cannot be labelled as “bad”. They are higher 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 the vicinity of ANY of the anāriya jhāna. This is how the 89 citta become 121 citta; see, “The 89 (121) Types of Citta“.
  • When it is said, “from the vicinity of ANY of the anāriya jhāna“, that includes the vicinity of the first mundane jhāna, i.e., just upacara samadhi. This is why jhāna are not NECESSARY to attain magga phala, and it is “Samma Samadhi” in the Noble Eightfold Path that gets to Samma Ñana and Samma Vimutti (i.e., Arahanthood). 

18. The key question is “If mundane and supramundane jhāna seem to have the same 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 anariya jhāna, i.e., one is essentially an Anāgami if one can be fully absorbed in the first Ariya jhāna.
  • While it may not be straight forward to determine whether one is a Sōtapanna or not, it is fairly easy to determine whether one is an Anāgami, who has removed all kāma rāga: one’s CRAVING for ALL sense pleasures (food, music, sex, etc) should not be there anymore. This DOES NOT mean, for example, 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.

19. Finally, a common problem is that some people get attached to mundane jhānic pleasures, and get trapped there (for some people even a state of calmness is enough!). They need to realize that anāriya (mundane) jhānic states also belong to this world, and 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 apāyas is not eliminated). We all have attained highest anāriya jhānas numerous times in our deep past.

  • Those who can easily get into anāriya (mundane) jhāna, can do so most likely because they had cultivated jhāna in recent past lives, possibly in the current human bhava.
  • Furthermore, those who are unable to 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, jhāna are not necessary to attain magga phala. Thus there could be some people who have even attained the Sōtapanna stage, but may be stressed unnecessarily because of their inability to get in to jhāna.

The basic layout was presented in this post. We will get into details in the upcoming posts.

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