Mind, Brain, Consciousness

Arūpa jhāna

Despite the perfection of the 4th rūpa jhāna, it is still limited. There is still dependence on the nimitta as object, that is, as a rūpa , even though the depth of absorption is such that the nāma-rūpa  split is extremely subtle. The 4th rūpa jhāna is still part of the realm of form with a thread running directly back to the beginnings of developing the jhānas. If a meditator’s practice continues to develop, a stage will come when the meditator may wish to transcend this limitation, to become free of dependence on the realm of form.

The wish to be free or to transcend this dependence on form is intricately connected to the meditator’s sense of self, and the wish to proceed further to develop the formless jhānas is increasingly a process of developing insight into the “Self”, or, in Buddhist terms, wisdom, and eventually enlightenment, nibbāna.

Letting go of attachment to the nimitta, the meditator brings to mind the idea of limitless space, and develops the 1st arūpa jhāna, the Sphere of the Infinity of Space (in pāli, ākāsānañcāyatana). Perception becomes more subtle than in the previous form jhānas, and does not depend on comparison of detail or difference. Space is infinite, and so there is nothing to “recognise” through differences. The meditator does not seek to discriminate any object or rupa whatsoever, so the limitation of a finite rupa as object does not arise, leaving limitless “space”. The pāli word, ākāsa , is normally translated as “space”, yet it does not imply simply “nothing”. Nor can we say it is “something”, since that would imply it had become a limited object or rupa. Without the idea of space, we cannot imagine objects. Also, ākāsa derives from the root kas, which implies radiance, but in this case not light as an object; perhaps more as an alive potential. In some mystical traditions ākāsa is thought of as containing a record of everything that has ever happened, but also everything that will ever come to pass in the future. In 1969, Lama Anagarika Govinda5 wrote “In the moment in which a being becomes conscious of his consciousness, he becomes conscious of space. In the moment in which he becomes conscious of the infinity of space, he realises the infinity of consciousness.”

A visual simile, such as those used in the rūpa jhānas, is not helpful since it would simply become an object, and part of the realm of form. How then to approach this meditation? The meditator may find it helpful to set a direction to his/her will by gazing at a cloudless sky for some moments outside of meditation, linking the experience to mentally sounding the word “Space… Space”, or “ākāsa… ākāsa”. Then, briefly recollecting “Space… Space”, or “ākāsa… ākāsa” at the point of wishing to develop the 1st arūpa jhāna may serve as an impulse or “wish” that allows the meditator to let go of limits, to enter the experience of the sphere of limitless space. Through not depending on form, the meditator experiences freedom from dependence on form, and from the sense spheres, in the 1st arūpa jhāna.

While dwelling on infinite space, the meditator’s perception necessarily implies consciousness of infinite space, although since the meditator is “within” that consciousness, the consciousness itself is not attended to as an object. By the mental act of “adverting” to the consciousness of perceiving infinite space, the meditator enters the 2nd arūpa jhāna, the Sphere of Infinite Consciousness (viññānañcāyatana). As above, a meditator may use the words “Consciousness… Consciousness“, or “viññāna… viññāna” as the impulse to enter the 2nd arūpa jhāna directly. Describing the 2nd arūpa jhāna, the Vimuttimagga enigmatically states, “He attends to that consciousness as infinite with which space is filled”.

The first two arūpa jhānas may be considered an interdependent pair, in that the meditator moves between the opposite poles of the process of perception. Even having moved to the pole of infinite consciousness, the other pole, Space, is there in potential, since the 2nd arūpa jhāna arose from that base. Awareness of this interdependence, allows the meditator to move to a central position, identified with neither pole, although both are there in potential. The meditator holds a position of concentration where he/she is “in-between”, resisting any urge to identify with a self-consciousness as observer, nor of any awareness of something to perceive, until the in-between position itself becomes fixed and secure. This is the Sphere of Nothingness (ākiñcaññāyatana), the 3rd arūpa jhāna. The words “Nothing… Nothing” or “Empty… Empty”  may be helpful.

At this stage one might wonder, what could be more subtle, what else is there to let go of? This approaches the question, “Who Perceives”? Even in the fine balance of the 3rd arūpa jhāna, any movement from that balance can result in a moment of consciousness, of the type we are familiar with where there is still a sense of ourselves, no matter how subtle. Is there any alternative? Is there any other kind of perception that does not depend on seeking an object, again no matter how subtle. This question goes to the heart of Buddhist practice, the idea that mundane states of consciousness are driven by a drive to sustain an ongoing sense of self, or in Buddhist terms, are rooted in ignorance or not-knowing.

The 4th arūpa jhāna, in pali is n’evasaññā-n’āsaññāyatana, the Sphere of Neither Perception nor Non-Perception. The Vimuttimagga, in attempting to describe this jhāna  refers to a mental position without coarse perception (i.e. “Neither Perception”, n’evasaññā), but also without an absence of any perception at all (i.e. “Nor Non-Perception”, n’āsaññā).  In this sense, coarse perception is that perception associated with the “near enemy” of mundane consciousness that serves to support our conventional ongoing sense of self. It seems that the 4th arūpa jhāna is “different” to the preceding jhānas, in being characterised by a different kind of “fine perception”, as in the description of the Vimuttimagga. The 4th arūpa jhāna therefore seems intricately linked to the Insight or Wisdom stages of Buddhist practice, namely the three “signs” of impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha), and non-self (anattā), and particularly the last of these. The words “Neither perception, nor non-perception” or the pāli, “n’evasaññā-n’asaññā” may be helpful as a prompt. (“a” in front of a word in pāli negates the word following, as in rūpa, form, and arūpa, formless; and as in saññā, perception, and asaññā, non-perception. In the Khmer mantra tradition of Southeast Asia it is regarded as a magical syllable, and particularly in this case of the 4th arūpa jhāna the use of the pāli words may be more potent than the English translations.)

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