I don't understand the formless jhanas.

Does this meditator completely lose consciousness of form, or are they meditating on something formless and, apart from that, as before?

I've read the abhidharmakosa bhashyam, of Vasubhadhu, and he says that a mediator of this sort will be later reborn into a realm without form, so that suggests that there are sentient beings without any of the sense consciousnesses. But I just find the idea impossible, to be honest.

Interesting, one of those books says that some Buddhists claim that there is a residue of visual consciousnesses there.

Can anyone describe to me what the formless jhana is like? I'm especially intrigued as to whether there is any sense of shade to it: if it seems darker or lighter than any given colour I've experienced.

  • vibhajavadins, iirc, claimed that
    – user2512
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 4:51
  • I don't know why someone downvoted this but it might be because the title isn't very good. Could you try to edit the title. to make it more closely reflect or summarize what you're asking in the body of the question?
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 14:32

3 Answers 3


Formless meditations exist. The eight attainments (atthasamapatti) in meditation (attaining Adhicitta) broadly has two parts - namely, the first four rupa jhanas and the four arupa jhanas. These last four are higher stages of mental concentration – the formless states - enable one to gain super-normal powers.

Even though we see the mind as normally inter-dependent with body, there are levels of existence where only mental phenomena exist, with nothing whatever of rupa. The four 'formless' (arupa) meditative states are attainable from the fourth jhana onwards:

The sphere of infinite space (Akasanañcayatana);
This is attained by transcending any cognition of rupa, by abandoning the metal image that was previously the object of concentration, and seeing that space is infinite.

The sphere of infinite consciousness (Viññaaañcayatana);
In this second state, the focus is on the consciousness that had been aware of infinite space.

The sphere of nothingness (Akiñcaññayatana);
In the third, this object (Viññaaañcayatana) is dropped, and the focus is on the apparent nothingness remaining.

The sphere of neither-cognition-nor-non-cognition (Nevasaññanâsaññayatana). In the fourth, this object (Akiñcaññayatana) is dropped and the mind is in an attenuated state where it is hardly functioning.

SD 24.11 _ Pathama Jhana Pañha Sutta or (Savitakka) Pathama Jhana Sutta. Progressing in the 1st dhyana.
SD24.12a _ Dutiya Jhana Pañha Sutta or (Avitakka) Dutiya Jhana Sutta. Progressing in 2nd dhyana.
SD 24.13 _ Tatiya Jhana Pañha Sutta or (Sukhena) Tatiya Jhana Sutta. Progressing in the 3rd dhyana.
SD 24.14 _ Catuttha Jhana Pañha Sutta or (Upekkhaka) Catuttha Jhana Sutta. How to progress in the 4th dhyana.
SD 24.15 _ Akasanañcayatana Pañha Sutta. Progressing in the sphere of infinite space.

SD 24.16 _ Viññaaañcayatana Pañha Sutta. Progressing in the sphere of infinite consciousness.
SD 24.17 _ Akiñcaññayatana Pañha Sutta. Progressing in the sphere of nothingness.
SD 24.18 _ Nevasaññanâsaññayatana Pañha Sutta. Progressing in the sphere of neither-perception-nor-non-perception.

  • when you say "nothing whatever of rupa", do you know if that is also the case in the mind only schools?
    – user2512
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 19:05

I guess words are not enough to describe experiences. I don't know if they exist or how it is to be in a formless jhana, but I can tell you for sure that you will only get frustrated by trying to understand any experience using words or thoughts. See for yourself!


I am not aware of an explanation in the original Pali scriptures of exactly why the terms 'rupa (form) jhana' & 'arupa (formless) jhana' are used.

However, I would guess the term 'rupa' jhana is related to the activity of the nervous system of the entire physical body ('rupa'). For example, just before entering into the 1st (rupa) jhana, the mental stress stored within the physical is completely calmed & the entire bodily nervous system starts to radiate with bliss. Although the physical body & breathing can no longer be felt in the 1st jhana (due to the strength of the rapture-bliss in the brain dominating conscious awareness), the bliss of the entire bodily nervous system is the basis of the bliss of the rupa jhanas. The Pali scriptures state:

He enters & remains in the first jhana...in the second jhana...There is nothing of his entire body unpervaded by rapture & pleasure...MN 119.

As rapture (piti) & then pleasure (sukha) subside, the mind becomes purified & completely clear in the 4th (rupa) jhana; without the sense objects (sensations) of rapture & pleasure capturing consciousness awareness. The scriptures state, in attaining the 4th jhana, whatever physical-breathing activity remains is totally calmed:

Having attained the fourth absorption, inhalation and exhalation have ceased. SN 36.11

To gain a picture of what it means for the breathing to be completely calmed/ceased, MN 43 describes it is the same as a dead body (thus a medical doctor would think the body is dead due to no movement of the breathing despite the life-force of the body remaining alive).


Therefore, the formless meditations (arupa jhana) are described as solely meditations upon consciousness & mentality, without any breathing & feeling sensations from the bodily nervous system being felt.

The features of the formless meditations are described in MN 111, as follows:

Sariputta entered & remained in the dimension of infinitude of space...the dimension of infinitude of consciousness...the dimension of nothingness. Whatever qualities there are...singleness of mind, contact, (mental) feeling, perception, intention, consciousness, zeal, decision, persistence, mindfulness, equanimity & attention — he ferreted them out one after another.

In the 'dimension of neither perception nor non-perception' (4th formless meditation/8th jhana), the scriptures describe the mental sense objects listed above start to disappear/fade & in the 'cessation of feeling & perception' ('9th jhana') all mentality, including consciousness, completely disappears.

Consciousness disappears in the '9th jhana' because there is no more perception & feeling thus, as taught in the scriptures (MN 38; SN 22.53), consciousness cannot arise without any sense objects.

Note: The '9th jhana' (cessation of feeling & perception) is not Nibbana/Nirvana.

In summary, in Buddhism, there are six avenues of sense consciousness. In the formless meditations (as described in MN 111), mind sense consciousness remains (although eye, ear, nose, tongue & body sense consciousness do not operate).

  • Please let us know why Note: The '9th jhana' (cessation of feeling & perception) is not Nibbana/Nirvana.? I like to suggest The 9th jhana is 'Nirodha Samapaththi'. In Secluded it says ` Having attained the cessation of perception and feeling, perception and feeling have ceased. In a taint-free monk greed has ceased, hatred has ceased, delusion has ceased......... greed has been stilled, hatred has been stilled, delusion has been stilled... .greed is quietened, hatred is quietened, delusion is quietened."`
    – Shrawaka
    Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 0:36
  • 'Nirodha Samapaththi' ('9th jhana') is just a form of mental tranquility (samatha), to the degree the mind becomes unconsciousness. Where as an arahant abides in Nibbana including when consciousness, as defined at: accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/iti/… Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 0:39

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