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Perception of Unbinding

October 10, 2013

Q: A reader asks:

Ven. Ananda, “But how, lord, could a monk have an attainment of concentration such that he would neither be percipient of earth with regard to earth… nor of the next world with regard to the next world, and yet he would still be percipient?” Ven. Sariputta (and the Buddha) both gave a response, “I was percipient at that time of ‘The cessation of becoming — Unbinding.” — Sariputta Sutta (AN 10.7)

“I would appreciate clarification, but I thought Unbinding was the result of cessation of perception and feeling, not being percipient of Unbinding?”

The Arahant: This is one of the most difficult topics. But it is easy to understand if you think about perceiving the lack of something. Did you ever enter a room and notice that something was missing? Such a perception is anchored in the expectation that the thing will be there. Something similar happens at Unbinding, when all being and becoming ceases.

The four higher jhanas are about the absence of something; the infinity of space, of consciousness, nothingness and neither-perception-nor-non-perception. Here is the best description of these jhanas in the Suttas:

“Furthermore, with the complete transcending of the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, [perceiving,] ‘There is nothing,’ Sariputta entered & remained in the dimension of nothingness. Whatever qualities there are in the dimension of nothingness — the perception of the dimension of nothingness, singleness of mind, contact, feeling, perception, intention, consciousness, desire, decision, persistence, mindfulness, equanimity, & attention — he ferreted them out one after another. Known to him they arose, known to him they remained, known to him they subsided. He discerned, ‘So this is how these qualities, not having been, come into play. Having been, they vanish.’ He remained unattracted & unrepelled with regard to those qualities, independent, detached, released, dissociated, with an awareness rid of barriers. He discerned that ‘There is a further escape,’ and pursuing it there really was for him.

“Furthermore, with the complete transcending of the dimension of nothingness, Sariputta entered & remained in the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception. He emerged mindfully from that attainment. On emerging mindfully from that attainment, he regarded the past qualities that had ceased & changed: ‘So this is how these qualities, not having been, come into play. Having been, they vanish.’ He remained unattracted & unrepelled with regard to those qualities, independent, detached, released, dissociated, with an awareness rid of barriers. He discerned that ‘There is a further escape,’ and pursuing it there really was for him.[4]

“Furthermore, with the complete transcending of the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception, Sariputta entered & remained in the cessation of feeling & perception. Seeing with discernment, his fermentations were totally ended. He emerged mindfully from that attainment. On emerging mindfully from that attainment, he regarded the past qualities that had ceased & changed: ‘So this is how these qualities, not having been, come into play. Having been, they vanish.’ He remained unattracted & unrepelled with regard to those qualities, independent, detached, released, dissociated, with an awareness rid of barriers. He discerned that ‘There is no further escape,’ and pursuing it there really wasn’t for him.” — Anupada Sutta (Majjhima-Nikāya 111)

All these ‘negative’ states based on the absence of something are characterized by extreme tranquillity. One who is in them finds even the most subtle qualities disturbing. Practically speaking, one can attain them reliably only in the most silent part of the day, from 2-4 AM. But what deep rest is there, what peaceful refuge!

Every human being is capable of such exalted states. Everyone is a magnificent sage by their deepest nature. If only they desire it and work to deserve it, the path will be revealed to them. Many good works must be done before that way to the highest dhamma opens up, but it is always there within us, just waiting for us to become qualified.

From → Q&A

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