The Formless Jhana Appendix: On the Origin of the Formless Contemplations
Form is emptiness, the very emptiness is form… —the Heart Sutra
What follows is an article I wrote ten years ago in Burma, as an appendix to a different article entitled “On Tarot Cards, Ouija Boards, Astrology, Spirit Mediums, and Spiritual Teachers.” Those of you who have read all of my obscure older stuff may be familiar with this, and so I apologize for recycling what I have written before; but it is one of my small contributions to the field of Buddhist Studies, and some of you who haven’t read it yet may be interested in the topic, so I publish it here for a little more public exposure. It is essentially the same as the original version, although with a very few minor changes and the fixing of a few typos.
The main point of the article, in case you were wondering, is to give my best explanation for the mentions of formless jhāna in the ancient Pali texts. Their status as authoritative “authentic” Dhamma is questionable, and so I question it. (I was even more inclined to question it at the time, as I was going through a period of pushing back against scriptural dogmatism at the time, living in very orthodox and dogmatic Buddhist Burma.) Exactly WHY it is questionable is discussed briefly in the article, along with my best guess as to how the concept was added to, and/or mutated within, the corpus of ancient Buddhist philosophy. Those of you who prefer to believe that the entire Pali Tipitaka was recited at the First Council, and that all of it is the pure and pristine teaching of Gotama Buddha and his enlightened disciples, are of course free to believe that; although, even so, you still might be able to salvage some useful information from the information below.
One more point: This article may demonstrate to the scriptural fundamentalists out there that I have pretty much ALWAYS been a heretic.
* * *
In Theravada Buddhist literature there is some ambiguity with regard to the exact number of contemplative states, or jhānas, included in the system. In some Pali texts, including some unquestionably very ancient ones, contemplation and contemplators (jhāyī) are mentioned without any specified number of contemplative states. However, it is clear that from very early on the number of these states officially has been four. Thus, for example, in the Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta, which is practically the Bible for the modern insight meditation movement, Right Concentration, sammāsamādhi, is defined as The Four Jhanas. It is not the purpose of this discussion to explain the essential nature of Buddhist jhanic states, which is just as well since the exact nature of these states is somewhat controversial nowadays; but the four jhanas may be briefly and generally described, more or less in accordance with standardized, stock descriptions found in the Pali texts, as follows: First jhana, the least advanced of the four stages, is a meditative state involving conceptual thought (or “thought and reflection”—vitakka-vicāra) as well as sensitivity to mental and physical pleasure and displeasure. In second jhana thought has ceased, temporarily, but the sensitivity to mental and physical pleasure and displeasure remains. In third jhana thought as well as mental pleasure and displeasure have ceased, but a sensitivity to physical pleasure and displeasure remains; and in the stock description of third jhana mindful awareness (sati) comes to be emphasized. Fourth jhana, the most exalted of the series, is declared to be “purity of mindfulness” (satipārisuddhi), and in it thought and mental/physical pleasure/displeasure have all ceased. Some Pali texts appear to imply that fourth jhana was considered by many, at least, to be the best if not only “jumping off point” to Nirvana. To give just one example, according to the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta (D. 16) Gotama Buddha himself passed into final Nirvana, at his death, from fourth jhana.
The later Abhidhamma commentarial tradition added a fifth jhana, or rather a first-and-a-halfth one, between first and second by supposing a meditative state in which “thought” but not “reflection” (or “sustained application”) has ceased. This addition to the system, however, never really caught on, except perhaps among Abhidhamma scholars, and is usually ignored.
Yet there is another addition to the system which is more highly regarded and also apparently rather earlier, being mentioned repeatedly in the Pali suttas themselves. This addition is called formless contemplation, or arūpajjhāna, and consists of the following states, or “spheres,” in ascending order of development: the sphere of infinite space (ākāsānañcāyatana), the sphere of infinite consciousness (viññāṇānañcāyatana), the sphere of nothingness (ākiñcaññāyatana), and the sphere of neither perception nor nonperception (nevasaññānāsaññāyatana). Although these postulated contemplative states were incorporated into orthodox Buddhist doctrine relatively early, they apparently were not incorporated as early as “The Four Jhanas”; otherwise, presumably, the traditional number would have been eight, not four. Also, there are some Pali suttas which are considered by western academic types to be relatively very early, or doctrinally very conservative, in which a mention of the formless contemplations is conspicuously lacking. For example, in the cardinal Pali text the Samaññaphala Sutta (D.2) the Buddha describes the fruits of the contemplative life in ascending order of exaltation, yet after explaining fourth jhana he begins a description of certain psychic powers which may result from contemplation, completely omitting any specific mention of formless jhanas. A standard explanation is that the formless jhanas are a kind of annex to fourth jhana, being formless variations of it; but this explanation is not well supported by the suttas themselves, which generally list the formless spheres, without calling them “jhana,” after The Four Jhanas (when they list them at all). In the previously mentioned scene of the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta describing the death of the Buddha, it is said that immediately before his final Nirvana he entered the four jhanas in succession, then the four formless spheres in succession, then another, even more ethereal state called “cessation of perception and feeling” (saññāvedayitanirodha)¹ after which he then descended stage by stage back down to first jhana, and then reascended to fourth, from which he entered Nirvana. This seemingly unnecessary tour through a wide spectrum of deep contemplative states immediately prior to his death may be hypothetically accounted for by the idea that originally there were only The Four Jhanas, and that the Buddha was believed to have entered Nirvana from the highest one, a traditional “jumping off point”; but later, after Buddhist philosophy had become more elaborated and systematized and higher contemplative states had been postulated, some ancient scholastic or group of scholastics saw fit to interpolate the expanded system into the text in order to make it more “complete.” However, they did not attempt to alter the tradition that the Buddha died in fourth jhana, possibly because that tradition was too well-known to be altered, so it was found necessary for him to return from the higher states in order to pass away in accordance with the original, or at least earlier, story.
Of course, traditionalists may insist that the Pali suttas are not corrupt at all, and contain no interpolations or alterations, and so forth; but, though this is not logically impossible, they cannot demonstratively prove this, and are simply (or complicatedly) guessing, very likely for religious, emotional reasons—it gives them a feeling of security and comfort to believe it, so they believe it. Now, everybody has to make guesses in life; and if a Buddhist wishes to guess, or hypothesize, that the Pali texts, or certain Pali texts, are fully reliable, then he or she certainly has that option, and it may be a very convenient guess or hypothesis for a Buddhist to work with. But if one makes a guess, then certainly one should know that one is guessing. To formulate or accept a guess or hypothesis that one cannot prove and cannot really know, and yet vehemently to insist that it is true, is misguided at best and at worst, insane. Such is dogmatism. It is a kind of conceptual idolatry; and it is rather unlikely that Gotama Buddha ever intended his method of Dhamma to be that way. So, for the sake of open-mindedness, and as an exercise in thought, we may consider the question of why or how, hypothetically, the formless contemplations became part of the elaborated, developed system of Theravada Buddhist ethical philosophy. There are three obvious possibilities which will be considered in turn.
First, there can be little doubt that in ancient and medieval India there was a great passion for intellectual elaboration and systematization of philosophical/religious systems, multiplying the invisible and at the same time dividing everything down into a minimum number of postulated elemental states and analyzing to death all their possible interactions. This vogue for theoretical elaboration gave rise to the various Abhidharma schools of early Buddhism as well as much of the mass of commentarial, subcommentarial, and sub-subcommentarial literature of ancient and medieval times. It was not restricted to Buddhism, but prevailed in almost all schools of Indian philosophy, with some schools being predominantly based upon it. Evidence of this kind of thinking can be found, by those who are willing to look for it, in the Pali suttas; and, assuming for the sake of argument that the early Buddhist scriptural traditions have not been immune to change and developed gradually, it appears plausible, at least, that the old Indian passion for gratuitous elaboration of system was a key factor in the genesis of orthodox contemplative states higher than fourth jhana. But it was probably not the only factor.
A second possibility is that the formless contemplations were devised as a propagandistic means of belittling non-Buddhist meditative systems. Unfortunately, caustic disparagement of non-Buddhist philosophers, philosophies, and religions is rather common in the Pali texts, being particularly noticeable, for instance, in the Majjhima Nikāya. A typical example is the Buddhist treatment of the “six heretical teachers,”² as they are sometimes called, who reputedly were contemporaries of Gotama Buddha, with some of them possibly being more renowned and more respected in the Buddha’s time than the Buddha himself. They are generally portrayed in the texts as a group of foolish, bungling charlatans, rather like an ancient Indian version of the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, plus Gilligan, with no fewer than two of them, according to Buddhist tradition, vomiting hot blood and dying for no better reason than that one or two of their disciples apostatized and converted to Buddhism. Another prime example of sectarian propagandism is the canonical Buddhist treatment of Indra and Brahma, two of the chief deities of the Brahmanistic pantheon. Both of them allegedly converted to Buddhism, with Indra coming to favor the name Sakka and becoming a Buddhist saint, but with Brahma, literally the Brahmanistic personification of Ultimate Reality, occasionally backsliding into believing the religion named after him. In at least one sutta³ these two deities stand watch before the entrance of the Buddha’s private chamber and recite devotional panegyrics in his honor, presumably implying that he is their superior. In the traditional account of the Buddha’s enlightenment, found in various Pali texts, when the Buddha is hesitant to begin teaching Dhamma, suspecting that nobody would be able to understand or appreciate it, the Great Brahma descends to earth and humbly urges him to promulgate a philosophy that will eventually debunk and deride the worship of him, Brahma. And as if that were not enough, the Buddhists placed Brahma—again, the very personification of Ultimate Reality—in a relatively mediocre heaven realm, postulating a whole slew of heaven realms higher than it, with corresponding contemplative states.⁴ It may be fair to mention that the early Buddhists received their karmuppance when they were in turn belittled and derided as Hinayana (“The Deficient Vehicle”) by the later Mahayanists. At any rate, the main point of all this is not to denigrate genuine Dhamma, but to suggest that not everything to be found in the texts is genuine Dhamma, and then to point out that it is not inconceivable that early Buddhist systematizers added the formless spheres to the four already established jhanas as a way of belittling the theories or interpretations of enlightenment or Ultimate Reality endorsed by rival, non-Buddhist philosophical systems. Thus they could say, “There, you see, they are not enlightened at all. What they are describing and calling ‘The Highest Principle’ is merely a sub-Nirvanic contemplative state. We Buddhists do better than that.” There is some support for this interpretation in the fact that at least two of the formless spheres, the sphere of infinite consciousness and the sphere of neither perception nor nonperception, correspond fairly well with attempted descriptions of The Highest Principle given in the Upanishads. The sphere of nothingness also could reflect such a well-known Upanishadic dictum as neti, neti (“not this, not that”), or perhaps even the teachings of philosophical nihilists.
However, the third possibility to be considered for the genesis of arūpajjhāna is more intriguing, and also rather less blameworthy if it were true. It is theoretically possible that the four formless contemplations were added to orthodox doctrine as a means of integrating older, established yet superseded doctrines (especially concerning the nature of enlightenment) into a newer, developed and standardized system of theory. There can be no reasonable doubt that Buddhism, like Christianity, underwent a rapid, virus-like mutation during its first few hundred years of existence. Even those who prefer to believe that Theravada represents the pure, pristine, and infallible teachings of Gotama Buddha must realistically admit that even before the advent of Mahayana about 2000 years ago early Buddhism had already split up into many sects, mainly because of differences in philosophical theory. It appears very likely that very early Buddhism mushroomed with philosophical and religious theories, largely due to the previously mentioned Indian passion for intellectual elaboration, with some of these ideas eventually falling by the wayside, some of them filling perceived gaps in the system, some attempting to explain seeming discrepancies in older doctrines, and some perhaps even supplanting older doctrines. Unresolvable differences of opinion amongst teachers within a school often enough resulted in schism, but resolvable differences presumably resulted occasionally in compromise solutions. Thus, some old interpretations of Dhamma, especially of enlightenment, were eventually rejected as orthodox dogma settled down into an organized, standardize body of doctrine, yet a few of them were preserved in old verses which were too well-known and too well-venerated to be edited out of the Canon. So, as a kind of compromise, these few interpretations of enlightenment were reinterpreted as very high contemplative states, that is, as formless spheres. Going with this hypothesis, vestiges of archaic, outmoded interpretations of Dhamma which gave rise to arūpajjhāna may possibly be identified in the Pali suttas.
Beginning with the highest of the four, the sphere of neither perception nor nonperception may have its origin in a paradoxical verse of the Kalahavivāda Sutta (Discourse on Quarrels and Contentions) of the Sutta Nipāta. This text is part of the Aṭṭhakavagga, a chapter of the Sutta Nipāta which was evidently an independent work, which is linguistically and doctrinally very archaic, and which was much better known and more influential among Buddhists in ancient times than it is today. The verse (v.13 of the sutta) is as follows:
na saññasaññī na visasaññasaññī,
nopi asaññī na vibhūtasaññī;
evaṁ sametassa vibhoti rūpaṁ,
saññānidānā hi papañcasaṅkhā.
"He has no perception of perception; he has no perception of nonperception;
He is not without perception; he has no perception of 'void';
For one who has attained thus form becomes void,
For founded in perception is differentiating designation."
Although the commentarial literature declares that the verse above is describing an unenlightened meditative state, it is clear from its context with the verses which immediately follow it that it is in fact attempting to describe the "highest purity of spirit”—the mentality of enlightenment. But, this interpretation of enlightenment came to be rejected and obsolete, or else it was simply too obscure to be understood, and so, according to the hypothesis, the idea was relegated to the sphere of formless jhana. Strangely, the verse itself (not the idea) was not interpreted by later commentators as describing the sphere of neither perception nor nonperception but rather, apparently, a split-momentary transitional state between fourth jhana and the sphere of infinite space wherein the mind is no longer contemplating form, but is not yet contemplating formlessness either—which, considering the context of the verse, makes little if any obvious sense.
For the state next highest on the scale, the sphere of nothingness, one possible candidate for the honor of proto-Theravadin ancestor is the second verse of the Upasīvamaṇavapucchā (Questions of the Brahmin Student Upasīva), found in the Pārāyanavagga of the Sutta Nipāta. The Pārāyanavagga, like the Aṭṭhakavagga, was apparently an independent work before its incorporation into the Sutta Nipāta, bears signs of greater antiquity than most Pali texts, and was considered more important by ancient Buddhists than by modern ones. The verse in question is as follows:
ākiñcaññaṁ pekkhamāno satimā,
natthīti nissāya tarassu oghaṁ;
kāme pahāya virato kathāhi,
“Beholding nothingness, possessing mindfulness,
Relying upon “It is not,” (or, ‘There is nothing’), cross over the flood;
Having abandoned sensuality, refraining from controversies,
Look night and day to the destruction of craving.”
The verse is not so much attempting to describe Nirvana as a means to it, perhaps the cultivation of an approximation of an enlightened state of mind; and although orthodox commentary declares “beholding nothingness” and “It is not” to be referring to the sphere of nothingness, the text seems to be implying that one should “behold nothingness” at all times, not only when sitting in deep absorption, much as Mahayana Buddhists are instructed to cultivate an awareness of the voidness of all things, and as, indeed, the Mogharājāmāṇavapucchā of the Pārāyanavagga itself encourages with its injunction “Look upon the world as void, Mogharāja, always being mindful” (suññato lokaṁ avekkhassu / mogharāja sadā sato). Thus, according to the hypothesis, the commentarial interpretation would be an anachronistic invention of sorts, reflecting an attempt to accommodate a well-known but outmoded teaching of primitive Buddhism in the developed orthodox system by simply changing its meaning, no doubt with good intentions.
The sphere of infinite consciousness has an obvious counterpart among famous old Pali verses describing the Ultimate, namely the verses beginning, “Consciousness unmanifest, infinite, shining all around” (viññāṇaṁ anidassanaṁ, anantaṁ sabbatopabhaṁ) quoted at the end of the Kevaṭṭa Sutta (D.11).⁵ Somewhat ironically, the sutta itself is one of the previously mentioned propagandist texts, in which the Great Brahma, chief deity of the Brahmanistic pantheon and personification of Ultimate Reality, appears to backslide from Buddhism to some degree and is made a fool of; yet the quoted verses, which almost certainly attempt to describe Nirvana, and which are endorsed by the Buddha himself, represent an interpretation of The Highest Principle that more closely follows Brahmanism than orthodox Theravada, the Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism often describing Ultimate Reality, or Brahman, as infinite, formless consciousness, while the Theravadin Abhidhamma tradition asserts that consciousness and Nirvana are absolutely, completely different. Even the commentary is constrained to affirm that the verses refer to Nirvana, no doubt in part because the lines about the four elements gaining no foothold, “long and short, small and large,” and so forth are found elsewhere in the suttas as a more or less stereotyped pattern form poetically eulogizing the Highest State.⁶ It is quite possible that these controversial verses are older and more “primitive” than the Kevaṭṭa Sutta as a whole; yet even the sutta as it stands could hardly be called orthodox Theravada, considering the Buddha’s endorsement of Nirvana as infinite consciousness (even though, as mentioned elsewhere, an extra line was apparently added at the end of the verses as an attempt to rectify their orientation). It would seem that the verses (especially the first line and excepting the last one) represent an evolutionary dead end in Buddhist doctrine which arose during the explosive, virus-like mutation of early Buddhist philosophy, or may even have been original, but was outcompeted, for whatever reasons, by another interpretation of Nirvana which found its place in the settled, streamlined, standardized dogma of later centuries.⁷ Going with the hypothesis, then, in very early Buddhism there were a significant number of Buddhists who favored the idea of Nirvana as formless, infinite consciousness; but when, as the authoritative doctrine of proto-Theravada developed, the idea fell from grace, it was, by one means or another, converted into an advanced, formless sphere, possibly because it is easier to modify a belief than to abolish it altogether; and the notorious verses in the Kevaṭṭa Sutta which endorse the rejected old theory were left behind as an otherwise almost inexplicable literary fossil. Later editors and commentators, probably suspecting nothing of all this, did their best to cope with the situation and came up with their own rationalizations after the fact.
As for the remaining formless sphere, it is unlikely that there is or ever was a canonical Buddhist text identifying Nirvana with infinite space; although some Buddhist literature, especially Zen literature like the classic Hsin Hsin Ming (“On Believing in Mind”), declares the Perfect Way to be “like unto vast space.” Consequently, it may be hypothesized that this sphere was originally inspired by a metaphor, possibly a misunderstood one, or else it was postulated as a sort of logical prerequisite to the sphere of infinite consciousness, assuming that there must be infinite space for the consciousness to pervade.
A devout Theravadin could easily reply to all this that adept Buddhist meditators have actually attained these formless jhanas, which fact plainly demonstrates that the formless spheres really do exist, and thus refutes the whole hypothesis that they are merely artifacts of specious early Buddhist systematology. It certainly is true that some Buddhist meditators sincerely believe themselves to have attained arūpajjhāna; but by the same token some of these same meditators, following essentially the same methods, also sincerely believe themselves to have remembered former lives or incarnations which are historically inaccurate, mythological, or literally fabulous—for instance a past life as a dragon, or an elephant with approximately human intelligence who worshipped Buddhist pagodas. It is a largely ignored yet nevertheless serious problem in Theravadin spiritual practice that jhana is very frequently confounded with self-hypnosis, and this apparently has been the case for a very long time. (Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why some Buddhist meditation teachers warn their students not to practice jhana, despite the plain fact that the practice of jhana is strongly encouraged by the Buddha himself in the Pali texts.) Subjects in a deep hypnotic state generally experience what they believe they ought to experience, whether it is the sphere of infinite space, a fabulous past life, the disintegration of the world into subatomic particles, a communication from a superhuman being, or a vision of the Virgin Mary, and these experiences may be extremely vivid and convincing, not to say satisfying. This is true without even considering the more serious mental aberrations which may arise as a result of excessive or misguided yogic practice. It is simple human nature to be unsophisticated and easily beguiled with regard to abstractions, especially emotionally charged subjective ones.
This type of subjective self-beguilement occurs not only among those who attempt to practice jhana, but among some practitioners of so-called insight or vipassana meditation also. For example, some vipassana instructors assert that as a meditator develops insight he/she will see his/her own mind and mental states appearing and disappearing, at a rate of more than a trillion times per second, in accordance with the doctrines of orthodox Abhidhamma philosophy. There are a number of technical problems with this, including the rather obvious one, which nobody seems to notice, that one could not possibly see the disappearance of one’s own mind for the plain reason that the seeing, itself, would also disappear. One cannot know the nonexistence of one’s own mind because the knowing, itself, would be nonexistent. In short, one cannot see gaps in one’s own consciousness. Presumably the best that could be managed would be an awareness of a fluctuation between dimmer and brighter consciousness, a kind of flickering, but appearance and disappearance one could not see. Consciousness would necessarily be experienced as a continuum. If a dogmatic Theravadin considers this problem at all, he might attempt to resolve it by resorting to a somewhat naive analogy: when sleepers awaken from a deep sleep, they are aware of having been unconscious, and of the passage of time during that unconsciousness. But this is because, first, they can see objective evidence of the passage of time, as by looking at a clock, which they could not do after one 17-trillionth of an eyeblink; and second, even when they were sound asleep they were not entirely unconscious. If one were entirely unconscious, then one could not be awakened. One would not hear the alarm clock; one would not feel oneself being violently shaken. If one were truly unconscious, then one would be in a coma, not asleep, and would be oblivious of any subjective gap from one moment of consciousness to the next. But, some teachers and traditions assert that one must see the appearance and disappearance of the mind, so faithful meditators dutifully see it, even though it is logically impossible, and afterwards feel very happy and satisfied about this achievement. The moral of the story is that great caution should be exercised in the interpretation of subjective meditative states, for things are not always as they seem. Perhaps the safest course, as well as the most conducive to non-delusion (also known as “wisdom”), is to attribute no particular significance to them at all, not to bother with naming them or categorizing hem, and “to cultivate the signless.”
The foregoing discussion certainly does not disprove, or even try to disprove, the possibility that Gotama Buddha taught the formless contemplations to his disciples, or, for that matter, that he himself was taught them by his teachers before his enlightenment, as tradition asserts, and thus that they are pre-Buddhistic in origin. On the other hand, a Buddhist with a faith-based religious temperament—or anybody else—cannot even begin really to prove that the Buddha (or his early teachers) did teach them. From a logical point of view the issue is problematic, and cannot be known with certainty one way or the other, although of course one may vehemently believe whatever one likes. One of the purposes of this discussion of arūpajjhāna has been to foster some philosophical detachment from dogma; and it does appear plausible, at least, that the conception of arūpajjhāna is an anachronism somewhat awkwardly interpolated into an earlier, but still developing, system of Buddhist doctrine. However, entrenched dogmatic types need not be concerned with this, as it is a characteristic of dogmatism to ignore or reject, if necessary, even obvious facts, let alone hypothetical possibilities, and all, all in the name of Truth. Such is human nature.
May all in want of wisdom find it, and may all beings be well and peaceful.
* * *
1. Which, however, is never officially referred to as “jhana.” Regardless of the commentarial interpretation, it is apparently the same state referred to as “the signless concentration of mind” (animittacetosamādhi) which occurs at the same point in the series of contemplative states in the Culasuññata Sutta (M.121), “sign” here plausibly being synonymous with “perception and feeling.”
2. Pūraṇa Kassapa, Makkhali Gosāla, Ajita Kesakambalî, Pakhuda Kaccāyana, Sañjaya Belaṭṭhiputta, and Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta (alias Mahāvīra, the traditional founder of Jainism).
3. CF. S.I.xi.17.
4. For a more thorough and detailed account of this type of early Buddhist scriptural propagandizing, the reader is referred to Richard Gombrich’s How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings (Athlone 1996).
5. The complete passage as found in the sutta is given in the original article, on the nippapanca.org website.
6. One of the most well-known examples of this sort of description is found at the end of Bāhiya Sutta of the Udāna (Ud. 1. 10)
7. It was, however, revived by certain Mahayanist schools, or preserved by at least one proto-Mahayanist one, presumably of the Mahasanghika branch of early Buddhism.
(—completed on February 7, 2011, at Wun Bo Wildlife Refuge Monastery, Butalin Township, upper Burma, by Paññobhāsa Bhikkhu)