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Of Course There is…

August 30, 2013

Q: A reader of this post asks: “There is not much instruction in the Suttas on the attainment of the higher jhānas. However, the commentaries (i.e. Visuddhimagga) provide their own approach. How accurate are these post-Canonical texts in this regard and how does one reach these higher states?”

The Arahant: Of course there is plenty of instruction in the Suttas on how to attain the higher (formless) jhānas. Everything we need to attain complete enlightenment is there:

“I have set forth the Dhamma without making any distinction of esoteric and exoteric doctrine; there is nothing, Ananda, with regard to the teachings that the Tathagata holds to the last with the closed fist of a teacher who keeps some things back.” — Maha-parinibbana Sutta (DN 16)

Then there are instructions like this one:

“There are these ten totality-dimensions. Which ten? One perceives the earth-totality above, below, all-around: non-dual, unlimited. One perceives the water-totality… the fire-totality… the wind-totality… the blue-totality… the yellow-totality… the red-totality… the white-totality… the space-totality… the consciousness-totality above, below, all-around: non-dual, unlimited. These are the ten totalities. Now, of these ten totalities, this is supreme: when one perceives the consciousness-totality above, below, all-around: non-dual, unlimited. And there are beings who are percipient in this way. Yet even in the beings who are percipient in this way there is still aberration, there is change. Seeing this, the instructed disciple of the noble ones grows disenchanted with that. Being disenchanted with that, he becomes dispassionate toward what is supreme, and even more so toward what is inferior.

“There are these eight dimensions of [mental] mastery. Which eight?…” — Kosala Sutta (AN 10.29)

You should study the whole Sutta very carefully.

“But, lord, with regard to the property of light… the property of the cessation of feeling & perception: How is the attainment of these properties to be reached?”

“Monk, the property of light, the property of beauty, the property of the dimension of the infinitude of space, the property of the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, the property of the dimension of nothingness: These properties are to be reached as perception attainments. The property of the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception is to be reached as a remnant-of-fabrications attainment. The property of the cessation of feeling & perception is to be reached as a cessation attainment.” — Sattadhatu Sutta (SN 14.11)

You should carefully clear the definitions of all the Pāḷi terms in these descriptions. AN 9.36 comments on the stages beginning with the dimension of nothingness as follows:

“Thus, as far as the perception-attainments go, that is as far as gnosis-penetration goes. As for these two dimensions — the attainment of the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception & the attainment of the cessation of feeling & perception — I tell you that they are to be rightly explained by those monks who are meditators, skilled in attaining, skilled in attaining & emerging, who have attained & emerged in dependence on them.”

There are many similar quotes. Just because the term jhāna is not used literally in a Sutta does not mean the Sutta has no bearing on jhānas or their attainment. As I stated in the post referred to in this question, jhāna can also be viewed from the standpoint of dimension, movement or measurement.

Everything in the Buddha’s teaching is connected! Our job is to see the same Four Noble Truths from as many different angles as possible, until we understand it as a whole. That means if our understanding of one part changes, it will affect our understanding of the whole thing. There is a wonderful quote from Ven. Ñāṇavīra Thera:

“What I hope to find, when I come to read the book, is that you have formed a single, articulated, consistent, whole; a whole such that no one part can be modified without affecting the rest. It is not so important that it should be correct—that can only come later—, but unless one’s thinking is all-of-a-piece there is, properly speaking, no thinking at all. A person who simply makes a collection—however vast—of ideas, and does not perceive that they are at variance with one another, has actually no ideas of his own; and if one attempts to instruct him (which is to say, to alter him) one merely finds that one is adding to the junk-heap of assorted notions without having any other effect whatsoever. As Kierkegaard has said, ‘Only the truth that edifies is truth for you.’ (CUP, p. 226) Nothing that one can say to these collectors of ideas is truth for them. What is wanted is a man who will argue a single point, and go on arguing it until the matter is clear to him, because he sees that everything else depends upon it. With such a person communication (i.e., of truth that edifies) can take place.” — [L. 35 | 42] 12 May 1962

So that is our criterion of actual communication and intelligence. An intelligent person must be a systems thinker; he melds the Buddha’s teaching in the Suttas into “a single, articulated, consistent whole” in his own mind. And then he sets about implementing it in a methodical way, so he can determine by experiment and experience which parts of his understanding are correct and incorrect. He then revises his system and so forth. He does not give up working on what he has learned at the stage of duplication, or at the stage of understanding, or even at the stage of contemplation; he keeps at it until he has confirmed the Buddha’s teaching in actual practice.

Ven. Ñāṇavīra also had rather trenchant opinions regarding the validity of the Abhidhamma-piṭaka and Visuddhimagga, which you can find here, here and here. But we have not found a more readable expression of the problems with the commentaries than this one.

The bottom line is that Abhidhamma is an ontological analysis of the Buddha’s teaching—a map. Just as the map is not the territory, a symbolic analysis is never the thing it represents. Abhidhamma and Visuddhimagga lead to a a certain understanding of the Buddha’s teaching that might be useful for a certain category of seekers, but pretty much useless for everyone else. Abstractions are never as robust as their source. Better to go to the original teaching and make your own analysis.

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