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In the words of Buddha, the world in which we are living is generated as the following:

From ignorance as a requisite condition come fabrications.
From fabrications as a requisite condition comes consciousness.
From consciousness as a requisite condition comes name-&-form...

And, additionally, the following loop is also expounded:

"From name-and-form as a requisite condition comes consciousness. From consciousness as a requisite condition comes name-and-form..."

The full understanding (awakening) of this knowledge is given through the eight jhanas (particularly the last four Arupa Jhanas;) which relates to what was said precedingly as follows:

From the complete transcending of each following states, the bhikku enters & remains in the dimension of:

  • Infinite space
  • Infinite consciousness
  • Nothingness, then at last
  • Neither-Perception-Nor-Nonperception.

My question will be about the last two. What are they exactly, the Sphere of Nothingness and the Sphere of Neither-Perception-Nor-Nonperception? How can they be transcended, and what for?

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From Mahayana perspective, the Four Arupa Jhanas are before, not after the other four.

Of them, only the Sphere of Nothingness and the Sphere of Neither-Perception-Nor-Nonperception are of any real significance, while the first two are more like preliminary stages of the third.

The Sphere of Nothingness is the culmination of the teaching of Arada Kalama, Buddha's first teacher, who considered it equivalent to enlightenment. It is simply a state of consciousness empty of any content (incl. no perception of one's surroundings whatsoever). It is cultivated by progressively visualizing oneself in the center of city, then village, then camp, then empty camp, then empty field, then infinite empty space, then infinite consciousness, and then nothingness. Buddha taught it to some of his students as a preliminary practice. Cultivation of The Sphere of Nothingness is a good way to learn to control one's mind and get familiar with its workings.

The next level up is the Sphere of Neither-Perception-Nor-Nonperception, which a state of awareness that is not completely blank or empty, and does not involve complete blocking of external stimuli, but which nevertheless involves suppressing the associative function that normally leads to "recognition of particulars by their marks". Because of this, external stimuli are registered but not generalized to the level of objects. A perpetual example of this is looking at woman's curves and seeing only the raw visual with no trace of "woman" in the mind. Cultivation of the Sphere of Neither-Perception-Nor-Nonperception is a great way to get even deeper insight into the workings of one's mind at "microscopic" time scale, and it also helps with the practice of Guarding The Gates. Sphere of Neither-Perception-Nor-Nonperception was the culmination of the teaching of Buddha's second teacher, Udraka son-of-Rama, who considered it equivalent to enlightenment.

Both of these jhanas are outranked by the Buddha's own four jhanas, which are based on his insight into the nature of dukkha (Second and Third Noble truths).

The twelve nidanas of pratityasamutpada talk about emergence of phenomenal world, not so-called "objective" world.

Consciousness comes from name-and-form and vice-versa, because form is emptiness and emptiness is form. Consciousness is nothing but an interplay of forms, and forms are nothing but a content of consciousness.

  • It is simply a state of consciousness empty of any content (incl. no perception of one's surroundings whatsoever). Do you have any references? – user635 Aug 23 '14 at 0:51
  • DN 16.35; MN 121 – Andrei Volkov Aug 23 '14 at 0:55
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Nothingness is transcended by seeing the relative coarseness of perception even of nothingness. By observing the perception repeatedly, one sinks into a state of quasi-perception. As per the Vism:

When, however, he wants to develop the base consisting of neitherperception nor non-perception, he must first achieve mastery in the five ways in the attainment of the base consisting of nothingness. Then he should see the danger in the base consisting of nothingness and the advantage in what is superior to it in this way: “This attainment has the base consisting of boundless consciousness as its near enemy, and it is not as peaceful as the base consisting of neither perception nor non-perception,” or in this way: “Perception is a boil, perception is a dart … this is peaceful, this is sublime, that is to say, neither perception nor non-perception” (M II 231). So having ended his attachment to the base consisting of nothingness, he should give attention to the base consisting of neither perception non non-perception as peaceful. He should advert again and again to that attainment of the base consisting of nothingness that has occurred making non-existence its object, adverting to it as “peaceful, peaceful,” and he should give his attention to it, review it and strike at it with thought and applied thought.

Path of Purification X.40

Transcending the sphere of neither perception nor non perception is not directly accomplished in the same way as the others; it is considered the height of tranquility meditation, there is no further one can go with that type of practice. To transcend it means to switch to insight meditation; since insight meditation is considered higher than tranquility, it can be seen as the "next step", even though it is in a new category of practice and attainment.

  • Well there is nirodha samapatti "beyond" the other formless attainments - namely the extinction of consciousness. I think it's even mentioned in the Mahaparinibbana sutta. At the very least, I've heard it mentioned that that absorption was the only place the Buddha found peace for bodily suffering towards the end of his life. Describing it and how to get there is a bit beyond my pay grade at this point, though. – user698 Aug 29 '14 at 18:43

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