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When reading the suttas, sometimes I come across to the expressions: "dimension of the infinitude of space", "dimension of the infinitude of consciousness", "dimension of nothingness" and "dimension of neither perception nor non-perception".

What exactly is the meaning of the expressions above? Why they are "formless"? When the Buddha describes Right Concentration, he mentions only the four "form" jhana, why he excluded the "formless" jhana as Right Concentration?

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Here is my understanding as of today.

When they say "form" (rupa) or "seed" (bija) in context of meditation, it's what we call an object of meditation these days. For example, your breath, an image of the Buddha, a particular repulsive image used as an antidote to lust - are all examples of meditation objects. An object of meditation is used as its focal point and directly correlates with the meditation's goal or objective.

Formless meditation, in contrast, is a type of meditation that involves no particular focal point, no object. As I understand, the formless jhanas refer to a step-by-step sequence of getting rid of any notion of object, however subtle.

But before we can talk about formless meditation we need to talk about the ancient model describing the process of perception. In that model, the way we perceive things is by identifying a mark (aka sign) that serves as the main determining characteristic of an object, and by matching that mark against our memory of previous impressions, making an associative interpretation that what we're looking at (hearing, thinking about) can be described with such-and-such concept. This initial hypothesis is then confirmed by finding other secondary marks (signs) that the identified object must possess and confirming they lead to the same association. This process repeats in cycles until one of the associations expands into a related concept or a memory, which leads down some train of thoughts with its desires, fears, and other problematic mindstates.

Since thinking was understood to be the root of all evil, and yoga was defined as "citta vrtti nirodha" (stopping the ever unfolding associative cycle), getting rid of all objects was the chief method for stopping the thoughts. This was the state of the art before Buddha.

Now that we understand what we're dealing with, we can understand the sequence of formless jhanas. First, you visualize infinite empty space with no objects. This is a good approximation of objectlessness, but if you think about it, you still have an object on your mind - the image of empty space. In fact, this image of empty space consists of some kind of mental "mark" or "sign" that the meditator assumes to be a good associative hook (e.g. a tactile sensation of moving and encountering no contact, or a spatial image of endlessly expanding in all directions etc.) plus the concept "empty space" that we are interpreting that sign into. So, upon close examination this type of meditation is not very objectless as it still involves what's these days is called semiosis or the act of interpreting a sign into a meaning.

So as a next step, you meditate on the empty mind with no objects. It's a mind that is potentially capable of perception, it could potentially have an object but it does not. At first you successfully imagine such a mind and in contrast with meditation on empty space, this does seem to involve no sign and no act of interpretation. It seems like a truly objectless state. But then, as you keep meditating on it, you realize that in fact your meditation still does involve a subtle kind of "sign" that is interpreted into a concept! The idea that serves as a sign in this case is a notion of time passing with no objects appearing in/to the mind! So while this meditation is closer to objectlessness, it still has a kind of very subtle object - the notion of time passing.

So you progress to meditation on Nothingness. You just sit there with no content whatsoever. Your mind is completely blank. There is no perception of space or time. It looks like, finally, you have succeeded. However, once you master that, you realize that this absence of content in fact disappears when you stop meditating, therefore your meditation still has a limit, still has a focal point. You still artificially restrict your attention to exclude whatever is going on, and that counts as form. It's a very-very subtle object, it's an object of no-object - but an object nevertheless. The thoughts are stopped while you're in meditation, but once you come out of this withdrawal, you're back to square one. So this state is non-sustainable.

So then, as the final step, you realize that complete withdrawal from all objects is not as effective as learning to stop the associative mechanism from cycling. So instead of trying to generate a state with no objects, you transcend that restriction and allow your attention to stay wide open to stimuli, without apprehending any single one of them. Things may happen as normal but you don't associate, don't conceptualize, don't get carried away by them. Your meditation is truly formless (objectless), because the mind is wide open without grasping at signs. Unfortunately, this state is still useless because you can't really function in it. Any human activity that requires association and interpretation is incompatible with this method of liberation.

This ends the progression and concludes the study of semiotic perception.

The reason Buddha de-emphasized this approach, which apparently was known before Buddha, is because it has no direct relevance in his own framework, that of the Four Noble Truths. In Buddha's system the principle problem of sentient existence is "wrongness" (dukkha) and the goal is "suchness". So in Buddha's sequence of jhanas, the progression is focused on working with sources of "wrongness" in one's mental continuum, his method is to abandon coarse and then progressively subtler sources of "wrongness" while generating coarse and then progressively subtler states of "suchness" (joy=>bliss=>peace=>etc).

The formless jhanas are a nice exercise in concentration and an easy example of progressively refined meditative sequence that many practitioners in Buddha's times must have been familiar with, but in and of themselves they do not lead to Liberation as Buddha defined it - permanent, unconditional cessation of dukkha.

This is why most traditional sources describe formless jhanas as optional. In the ancient metaphorical language, the subjective experience of meditator in a formless jhana is compared with that of a deity at a certain level of heavens, whose life has no suffering but is finite and inevitably ends with eventual return to Earth.

While Buddha's jhanas are a progressive unfolding of his Four Right Efforts:

"There is the case where a monk generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for:
"[i] the sake of the non-arising [anuppādāya] of evil, unskillful qualities that have not yet arisen.
"[ii] ... the sake of the abandonment [pahānāya] of evil, unskillful qualities that have arisen.
"[iii] ... the sake of the arising [uppādāya] of skillful qualities that have not yet arisen.
"[iv] ... the maintenance [ṭhitiyā], non-confusion, increase, plenitude, development, & culmination of skillful qualities that have arisen."

And are a progressively closer approximation of the cessation of suffering declared in the Third Noble Truth.

Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, non-reliance on it.

In Buddha's four jhanas (known by contrast with the others as the "rupa" or form-jhanas), you examine your mind, identify the immediate sources of dukkha (cravings, attachments, hangups, mental conflicts etc.), as well as the various factors hindering your progress (distractions, pessimism etc.) and let go of those, while at the same time finding ways to generate the positive qualities that help you keep going, such as Motivation, Energy, Attentiveness, etc. as well as the approximations of suchness such as Pride, Joy, and Peace.

The culmination of rupa jhanas is liberation in the suchness of spontaneous presence, which involves no feeling of "wrongness" whatsoever and is endlessly sustainable because it is not limited by any condition other than the absence of aversions and cravings for things to be otherwise.

So unlike arupa jhanas which solve the wrong problem in the wrong way, Buddha's jhanas succeed by focusing on the right issue (that of the "wrongness" or "rightness" of one's experience) and then progressively refining the practice until it culminates in a fully sustainable, truly unconditional liberation.

  • I really like your answer but am a little nervous about upvoting it because of the lack of sutta references. Those references help me double check and continue individual study. If it wouldn't be too much trouble, please add some sutta references to highlight the critical points made. – OyaMist Oct 24 '18 at 14:08
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AN9.41 provides a wonderfully detailed experience of renunciation into and through these dimensions.

Why don’t I, going totally beyond perceptions of form, with the ending of perceptions of impingement, not focusing on perceptions of diversity, aware that “space is infinite”, enter and remain in the dimension of infinite space?’

The sutta also deals with the doubts you've expressed and basically states that faith and a willingness to shift outlook and renounce is the key to understanding and experiencing each dimension. They're progressive.

I haven’t seen the drawbacks of forms, and so I haven’t cultivated that.

Which leads to the following encouragement:

Suppose that, seeing the drawbacks of forms, I was to cultivate that. And suppose that, realizing the benefits of the dimension of infinite space, I was to develop that. It’s possible that my mind would be eager for the dimension of infinite space; it would be confident, settled, and decided about it. And I would see it as peaceful

Although we could discuss infinite space as the absence of forms, it wouldn't compare to actually experiencing that infinite space.

Note: this is inference, not experience. The earlier stuff has worked in this manner for me and has given me confidence to just keep going...

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Since they're "formless", they can't really be "exactly" described right? :-) Anyway, Ven. Bodhi's "Noble Eightfold Path" gave some idea about what they are. Also, while the four jhanas make up the usual textual definition of right concentration, that doesn't mean SammaSamadhi only involves just those 4 exclusively.

"Beyond the four jhanas lie the four immaterial states, levels of absorption in which the mind transcends even the subtlest perception of visualized images still sometimes persisting in the jhanas. The immaterial states are attained, not by refining mental factors as are the jhanas, but by refining objects, by replacing a relatively gross object with a subtler one. The four attainments are named after their respective objects: the base of infinite space, the base of infinite consciousness, the base of nothingness, and the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception.[65] These states represent levels of concentration so subtle and remote as to elude clear verbal explanation. The last of the four stands at the apex of mental concentration; it is the absolute, maximum degree of unification possible for consciousness. But even so, these absorptions reached by the path of serenity meditation, as exalted as they are, still lack the wisdom of insight, and so are not yet sufficient for gaining deliverance."

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I am so sorry for the long answer. It's required all of this knowledge to understand the meditation's idea.

What is jhāna?

Jhāna (concentration meditation) is the meditation method to cease the desire (chanda-rāga) of the world (loka) by changing mind's attention to the opposite object of the world.

What is the world?

Living being (satta) is the world (loka), 5 clinging-aggregates (upādāna-khandha[1][2]).

Loka means breakable thing. And what we can notice 3 characteristics must be break, breakable. What is unstable (anicca), stressful (dukkha), and non-self (anattā) is what we can notice it's instability-characteristic (anicca-lakkhaṇa), e.g. it's arising and vanishing, stress-characteristic, e.g. it's stressing to arise and to vanish in every millisecond, and uncontrollable characteristic, e.g. it's variant variables.

Each aggregate has 3 characteristics, so every aggregate (pañca-khandha) is breakable, and it is called Loka. There are 2 kinds of breakable aggregates, lokiya (with clinging) and lokuttara (no clinging). However the practitioner should comprehend only clinging aggregates (upādāna-khandha) to meditate insight meditation, Buddha called clinging aggregates (upādāna-khandha), in first noble truth, not only aggregates (khandha).

The genius people can notice 3 characteristics of every living being, so they try to cease all possible cases of living beings' rebirth by the meditation.

There are many method of the meditation of those genius people which doing the difference methods and each method causes the difference results, some is not able to pause any world, some can pause 5 string world (kāma loka), some can pause form concept world (rūpa loka), some can cease all worlds (kāma loka/rūpa loka/arūpa loka).

How many kinds of jhāna?

There are 3 kinds of jhāna:

  1. Form jhāna (rūpa jhāna) - meditation of changing mind's attention form five strings world (kāma-loka) to form's concept world (rūpa-paññatti-loka) to disable 5 sense attachments arising (kāmachandarāga). This meditation's step, 1st-4th jhāna, pause attachment of five strings and mental factors which can drop the quality of concentration down to five strings world. The attained people are going to reborn in the world without five string attachment, but it still has forms, such as eyes to watch the form to meditate rūpa-jhāna.
  2. Formless jhāna (arūpa jhāna) - meditation of changing mind's attention form form's concept world to formless world (arūpa-loka) to disable all form arising, which make rūpa jhāna&world still nearby five strings attachment. This meditation change the object to detach from mind and mental factors (arūpa-loka) as much as they can. However, it's useless, the number of mental factors still be the same, 30 factors, from the 1st formless jhāna to the 4th formless jhāna. The attained people are going to reborn in the world without form, but it still have mind and mental factors (nāma-khandha).
  3. Three characteristic jhāna (lakkhaṇa-jhāna) - vipassanā; insight meditation. Meditation of changing mind's attention form all worlds to nibbāna (cessation of world). The attained magga people do not reborn any more in maximum 7 rebirths.

Jhāna bases vipassanā, especially for the practitioner who attach five strings strongly (taṇhā-carita).

How to disable 5 sense attachment?

Keeping the sixth sense mind on concept object (paññatti;paṭibhāga-nimitta) by practice to change the the sixth sense memory of the five strings (kāmaguṇa) to concept object (paññatti;paṭibhāga-nimitta) then meditate that practice to go on for a long period, a hour or a day.

How to disable all form arising?

Keeping the sixth sense mind on the object which has no any relation with form (arūpa) by practice to change the the sixth sense memory of form concept (rūpa-paññatti;paṭibhāga-nimitta) to formless object (arūpa) then meditate that practice to go on for a long period, a hour or a day.

What is the problem?

The jhāna practitioner still keep the self attachment of their meditation mind&mind factors as "it's mine. It's me, not the other. It's myself, so I can control it". This is the reason why we need Buddha.


See Ma.Mu. Cūḷasīhanādasutta, Mahādukkhakkhandhasutta, the path of purification in pathavīkasiṇa chapter and aruppā chapter, and this article.

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