Mundane versus Supramundane Jhāna

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Mundane versus Supramundane Jhāna

October 12, 2017; revised February 9, 2018; June 8, 2018; June 17, 2022; August 17, 2022; rewritten November 16, 2022; revised January 31, 2023

Here we will discuss three critical suttā from the Tipiṭaka to resolve controversial arguments about mundane (anāriya) and supramundane (Ariya) jhāna.

The post, “Tapussa Sutta (AN 9.41)– Akuppā Cetovimutti” clearly explains the difference between Ariya and anāriya jhāna.

It is interesting to note that some suttā do not specifically label jhāna as Ariya or anāriya. One has to read a given sutta carefully to figure out which jhāna are discussed, but the conclusion always is that anāriya jhāna are worthless by themselves unless used as a platform to attain magga phala; see, “Samādhi, Jhāna, Magga Phala – Introduction.”

The “Paṭhama Mettā Sutta” also discusses the critical differences between Ariya and anāriya. It shows that a Sotāpanna can cultivate anāriya jhāna (i.e., without removing kāma rāga) and be born in lower Brahma realms. However, unlike those with anāriya jhāna without magga phala, that person will not return to kāma loka.

Only four jhāna (five according to Abhidhamma analysis) are discussed in the Tipiṭaka. Today, many English texts incorrectly label the “higher arūpāvacara samāpatti” as the fifth through the eighth jhāna. In the Tipiṭaka, they are labeled as ākāsānañcāyatana, viññāṇañcāyatana,  ākiñcaññāyatana, and nevasaññānāsaññāyatana samāpatti and NOT jhānic states.

1. The main characteristics and purposes of Ariya (supermundane) jhāna are described in detail in the “WebLink: suttacentral: Jhāna Sutta (Aṅguttara Nikāya 9.36).” The English translation (WebLink: suttacentral: Mental Absorption) at that site is not good, so I will translate most of the sutta here. However, the Sinhala Translation (WebLink: suttacentral: ඣානනිස්සයන සූත්‍රය (AN 9.36)) is much better; of course, anicca and anatta are mistranslated there too.

I will use critical Pāli terms without translating since anyone reading the post will likely understand them. I think that would make it easier to read.

2. Now, I will translate the sutta, and the numbers below correspond to the paragraphs in the Pāli version: “WebLink: suttacentral: Jhāna Sutta (Aṅguttara Nikāya 9.36).”

#1. Bhikkhus, I will state the removal of āsava (mental fermentations) via the first jhāna, second jhāna, third jhāna, fourth jhāna, ākāsānañcāyatana, viññāṇañcāyatana, ākiñcaññāyatana, nevasaññānāsaññāyatana, saññāvedayitanirodha (the last four are the arūpavacara samāpatti states). Also, I have minimized wording to keep the paragraph short, just giving the meaning. [āsava: mental effluent, pollutant, or fermentation, (lit: influxes), ‘cankers’, taints, corruption's, intoxicant biases. There is a list of four (as in D. 16, Pts. M. , Vibh.): the canker of (wrong) views (diṭṭhāsava), of sense-desire (kāmāsava), of (desiring eternal) existence (bhavāsava), and of ignorance (avijjāsava).]

Thus the primary purpose of jhānic states is to do insight meditation and remove āsava, not to enjoy that jhānic “pleasure” or relief. Nibbāna is attained via the removal of āsava:The Way to Nibbāna – Removal of Āsavā.”

There is a lot of important information in the next paragraph.

#2. Bhikkhus, I declare the removal of āsava (mental fermentations) via the first jhāna. On account of what do I say that? A bhikkhu abstaining from sense pleasures (vivicceva kāmehi), abstaining from akusala, arrives in the vicinity of the first jhāna (upasampajja viharati). He thus contemplates the anicca nature (aniccato), dukkha nature (dukkhato), disease-ridden nature (rogato), cancer-like nature (gandato), arrow-like nature (sallato), painful (aghato), danger-ridden (ābādhato), alien (parato), subject to destruction (palokato), an empty (suññato), not-fruitful and leading to helplessness (anatto) OF rūpa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa (rūpagataṁ vedanāgataṁ saññāgataṁ saṅkhārāgataṁ viññāṇagataṁ). He turns his mind away from those phenomena and, having done so, inclines his mind to Nibbāna: ‘etaṁ santaṁ etaṁ paṇītaṁ yadidaṁ sabbasaṅkhārasamatho sabbūpadhipaṭinissaggo taṇhākkhayo virāgo nirodho nibbānanti. [“It is peaceful, it is serene, the expelling of all saṅkhāra, breaking of bonds, removing greed and hate; Nibbāna.”] Thus he gets rid of āsava. Suppose he does not complete the removal of āsava. In that case, he will remove the first five saṁyojana and thus be born opapātika (in Brahma loka) and attain parinibbāna there. He will not return to this world (“No ce āsavānaṁ khayaṁ pāpuṇāti, teneva dhammarāgena tāya dhammanandiyā pañcannaṁ orambhāgiyānaṁ saṁyojanānaṁ parikkhayā opapātiko hoti tattha parinibbāyī anāvattidhammo tasmā lokā”).

Thus one cannot attain Ariya jhāna without comprehending the anicca, dukkha, and anatta nature of the pañcakkhandha.

The standard verse, “..(paṭhamaṁ) jhānaṁ upasampajja viharati..” is commonly translated as, “..enters and remains in the (first) jhāna...” However, “upasampajja viharati” (“upa” + “saŋ” + “pajja”) means “abiding in the vicinity of clarifying and removing ‘saŋ’ ”; of course ‘saŋ’ are lobha, dosa, moha or āsava. The prefix “upa” means “near or close.” For example, “upasampadā” (“upa” + “saŋ” + “padā”) means a bhikkhu has advanced and is getting close to “sorting out ‘saŋ” and thus to magga phala.

Now, let us recapture the three critical steps in the above paragraph: First, one gets to the jhāna by contemplating a long list of faults (ādīnava) of the five aggregates rūpa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa that make up one’s world; see, “The Five Aggregates (Pañcakkhandha).” [ādīnava:m. 過患, 患難, 過失, 危難. bad consequences (suffering), difficult and dangerous situation (trouble), fault (inadvertent [not resulting from or achieved through deliberate planning] mistakes), danger and disaster (distress)]

Once one gets to the vicinity of the first jhāna, one can intensify it and be fully absorbed in it by contemplating the relief that is already seen: ‘etaṁ santaṁ etaṁ paṇītaṁ yadidaṁ sabbasaṅkhārasamatho sabbūpadhipaṭinissaggo taṇhākkhayo virāgo nirodho nibbānan’ti. This is the extra effort involved in cultivating the jhāna versus paññāvimutti path. [It is peaceful, it is serene, the expelling of all saṅkhāra, breaking of bonds, removing greed and hate; Nibbāna.]

Thirdly, one can get to the higher jhāna by again contemplating the faults (ādīnava) of the five aggregates.

#3. “Bhikkhus, suppose an archer or archer’s apprentice practice on a straw man or mound of clay. After a while, he could shoot long distances, fire accurate shots in rapid succession, and pierce great masses; in the same way, a bhikkhu abstaining from sensuality, abstaining from akusala, arrives in the vicinity (upasampajja) of the first jhāna.”

The rest is essentially the same as in #2 above from that point onward about how āsava are removed by contemplating those faults (ādīnava) of the five aggregates, to the following confirmation statement at the end of the paragraph to emphasize the following: “Bhikkhus, I surely declare removal of āsava (mental fermentations) via the first jhāna.”

#4. This paragraph repeats the same paragraph of #2 above, for the second, third, and fourth jhāna. It is interesting that even at the fourth jhāna, one could only be guaranteed to become an Anāgāmī. However, as mentioned in #2, one could attain Arahanthood even from the first jhāna if all āsava are removed. That holds for any jhāna through the fourth.

#5. The same verse as #3 is repeated for the second, third, and fourth jhāna, with the paragraph ending, “..Bhikkhus, I surely declare the removal of āsava (mental fermentations) via the fourth jhāna.”

#6 , #7. The paragraphs in #2 and #3 for the first jhāna are now repeated for the first arūpāvacara samāpatti: ākāsānañcāyatana.

#8 , #9. The paragraphs in #2 and #3 for the first jhāna are now repeated for the second and third arūpāvacara samāpatti: viññāṇañcāyatana and ākiñcaññāyatana. Again, it is interesting that even at such higher arūpāvacara jhānā, one could only be guaranteed to become an Anāgāmī.

#10. “As for the two saññāsamāpatti āyatananevasaññā nā saññāyatana samāpatti and saññāvedayitanirodho – they remove āsava and will lead to the faultless state of Nibbāna.”

Thus if one gets to the highest arūpāvacara Ariya samāpatti, one will attain the Arahantship, and also will be able to get to nirodha samāpatti (saññāvedayitanirodho).

3. That is, in essence, the complete sutta, which provides many key insights that have been hidden surprisingly. I almost fell off my chair when I first read it. I am unsure how and why modern translators failed to understand the importance of this sutta.

Then I started reading more suttā and realized that these critical pieces are in many other suttā. See, for example, “WebLink: suttacentral: Cūḷa Vvedalla Sutta (MN 44)” AND “WebLink: suttacentral: Kāyagatāsati Sutta (MN 119).”

4. We can learn a lot of critical aspects of Ariya jhāna from this critical sutta. Let us begin with the fact that one gets to the vicinity (upasampajja) of the first jhāna by contemplating the faults (ādīnava) of pañcakkhandha (rūpa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa); once getting there, one further removes āsava by the same process.

Thus, one gets to jhāna with insight meditation (Vipassanā) on the unsuitability (faults of) kāmāvacara states, and then once getting to jhāna, starts doing Vipassanā on the unsuitability of any jhānic state to transcend that state.

There is a long list of such faults (ādīnava) (from #1): anicca nature (aniccato), dukkha nature (dukkhato), disease-ridden nature (rogato), cancer-like nature (gandato), arrow-like nature (sallato), painful (aghato), danger-ridden (ābādhato), alien (parato), subject to destruction (palokato), an empty (suññato), not-fruitful and leading to helplessness (anatto).

5. Therefore, the main goal at any given Ariya jhāna is to contemplate all those faults (ādīnava) of that state — and move to the next higher state. If a Noble Person goes through the four rūpāvacara jhānic states, all arūpāvacara samāpatti up to the neva saññā nā saññā and attains Nibbāna, they are said to have attained akuppā cetovimutti. See “Nirodha Samāpatti, Phala Samāpatti, Jhāna, and Jhāna Samāpatti.”

Of course, one could remove all āsava and attain Nibbāna from any lower jhāna.

If one attains Nibbāna from a lower jhānic state (below the highest arūpāvacara samāpatti), one is said to attain paññāvimutti.

While the word “jhāna” has come to everyday use, a better word is “dhyāna” (ඣාන in Pāli and දැවීම in Sinhala, meaning “burning”).

We will stick with the word “jhāna” instead of “dhyana” since it is commonly used. It is just helpful to know where the meaning comes from.

6. One can think clearly in any jhāna. Even intermittent vitakka/vicāra (“wheeling around” with stray thoughts) will be absent after the second jhāna, i.e., one is in the avitakka/avicāra (free of vitakka/vicāra) mode after the second jhāna; I will discuss jhānanga or jhāna factors in a future post.

This is why Ariya jhāna is helpful in insight (Vipassanā) meditation. The mind becomes calm when more and more saṅkhāra are removed as one proceeds to higher jhāna (and samāpatti) states.

7. Even though the relief experienced in Ariya jhāna is the only “enjoyment” recommended by the Buddha, that is not the primary purpose of Ariya jhāna. That is because if one gets attached to a jhāna, one cannot move up to the higher one. In any case, it is mainly those who get to anāriya jhāna who get attached to them (however, it is possible to attain any stage of magga phala even with anāriya jhāna or even without any jhāna). If one has seen the anicca nature, one will not get attached to a jhāna.

In that context, in a previous post, it was discussed that any jhānic state is a mental state corresponding to “this world”; see “Ascendance to Nibbāna via Jhāna (Dhyāna).”

8. Pancanīvarana are also completely removed at the first Ariya jhāna. From the WebLink: suttacentral: Mahāvedalla Sutta (MN 43): “.. Idhāvuso, paṭhamaṁ jhānaṁ samāpannāssa bhikkhuno kāmacchando pahīno hoti, byāpādo pahīno hoti, thinamiddhaṁ pahīnaṁ hoti, uddhaccakukkuccaṁ pahīnaṁ hoti, vicikicchā pahīnā hoti...”

Many suttā clearly state such conditions for the first supramundane jhāna.

In contrast, neither the five saṁyojana nor the pañcanīvaraṇa is removed in any mundane jhāna. The reasons are apparent: none of the kilesa (klesha/defilements) can be removed by taking a neutral object as the ārammaṇa.

9. This is why the Buddha told Ven. Saddhā: “..“Ājānīyajhāyitaṁ kho, saddhā, jhāya; mā khaḷuṅkajhāyitaṁ..”, OR “Saddhā, cultivate the ajānīya (thoroughbred horse) jhāna, not the khalunka (mule) jhāna”: WebLink: suttacentral: Saddhā Sutta (Aṅguttara Nikāya 11.9).

In the WebLink: suttacentral: Sutta Central translation, khalunka is a colt (a young horse). But the correct translation is a mule. As described in the sutta, a mule is lazy and useless compared to a thoroughbred horse.

As described in the sutta, one who cultivates mundane jhāna takes worldly objects (kasiṇa, breath) as ārammaṇa, and even though they can attain jhāna, they will not have the respect of the devas who can see the ārammaṇa.

On the other hand, devas cannot see the ārammaṇa (Nibbāna) of those who have cultivated Ariya jhāna, and they pay to him from a distance.

10. Therefore, there is a HUGE difference in HOW one arrives at a given jhāna.

One using the anāriya path gets to jhānā by focusing one’s mind on a mundane object, i.e., an object belonging to this world (for example, one’s breath or a kasiṇa object) and/or by contemplating mundane moral thoughts (benevolent, kind, etc.); we will discuss this in the next post.

On the other hand, one on the Noble Path reaches a jhāna by contemplating Nibbāna, i.e., the anicca, dukkha, and anatta nature of this world of 31 realms.

However, jhāna sukha is the only sukha recommended by the Buddha since sensory pleasures will bind one to the kāma loka. It is said that some paññāvimutta Arahants cultivate jhāna after attaining Arahanthood.

11. Also see the previous post where it is discussed how Ven. Moggallana cultivated the first jhāna after attaining the Sotāpanna stage: “Ascendance to Nibbāna via Jhāna (Dhyāna).”

One who can get fully absorbed in the first Ariya jhāna will be born in the Suddhāvāsa realms of the rūpa loka, and will not come back to the kāma loka, i.e., one is an Anāgāmī, as clearly stated in the Jhāna Sutta and several other suttā.

On the other hand, one who cultivates mundane first jhāna will be born in the first rūpāvacara Brahma realm in the next birth, but in later rebirths could even be born in the apāyā (since kāma rāga was only suppressed, not removed).

12. One can get into mundane (anāriya) jhāna via breath or kasiṇa meditation, and one could do Vipassanā from mundane jhānic states.

But the problem is that people get addicted to those states and cannot see their anicca nature.

13. In addition to the above suttā (and more that I found) on Ariya jhāna, I found other suttā that discussed anāriya jhāna. In none of these suttā was a specific label saying Ariya jhāna or anāriya jhāna. However, one can see which is which when reading text.

In the following reference, it is clearly stated that kāma rāga is only suppressed (vikkhambhanato) in all rūpāvacara and arūpāvacara jhāna. On the other hand, it states that kāma rāga is removed (samucchedato) in stages via magga phala.

The difference between vikkhambhana pahāna and samuccheda pahāna is discussed in, “Suffering in This Life – Role of Mental Impurities.”

The following are the two relevant passages from the Khuddaka Nikāya, Mahāniddesa, Aṭṭhakavagga: WebLink: suttacentral: 1. Kāmasuttaniddesa (Mnd 1) . There is no English translation there, but the Sinhala translation is given: WebLink: suttacentral: කාම සූත්‍ර නිර්දෙශය (Mnd 1).

Paṭhamaṁ jhānaṁ bhāventopi vikkhambhanato kāme parivajjeti … pe … dutiyaṁ jhānaṁ bhāventopi … tatiyaṁ jhānaṁ bhāventopi … catutthaṁ jhānaṁ bhāventopi … ākāsānañcāyatanasamāpattiṁ bhāventopi … viññāṇañcāyatanasamāpattiṁ bhāventopi … ākiñcaññāyatanasamāpattiṁ bhāventopi … nevasaññānāsaññāyatanasamāpattiṁ bhāventopi vikkhambhanato kāme parivajjeti. Evaṁ vikkhambhanato kāme parivajjeti.

Translated: kāma” is suppressed (vikkhambhanato) in the first jhāna, …to nevasaññānāsaññāyatana (highest arūpāvacara samāpatti). As we saw above, kāma is removed even before getting to the first Ariya jhāna. Thus, only anāriya (mundane) jhāna are meant here.

See “WebLink: suttacentral: Tapussa Sutta (AN 9.41)” for another example.

Kathaṁ samucchedato kāme parivajjeti? Sotāpattimaggaṁ bhāventopi apāyagamanīye kāme samucchedato parivajjeti, sakadāgāmimaggaṁ bhāventopi oḷārike kāme samucchedato parivajjeti, anāgāmimaggaṁ bhāventopi anusahagate kāme samucchedato parivajjeti, arahattamaggaṁ bhāventopi sabbena sabbaṁ sabbathā sabbaṁ asesaṁ nissesaṁ samucchedato kāme parivajjeti. Evaṁ samucchedato kāme parivajjetīti—yo kāme parivajjeti.

Translated: kāma” is removed (samucchedato) in stages via the Sotāpanna, Sakadāgāmī stages and is removed at the Anāgāmī stage; it is removed without a trace at the Arahant stage.

14. The following sutta clearly states the difference between Ariya and anāriya jhānā.

WebLink: suttacentral: Paṭhamanānākaraṇa Sutta (AN 4. 123): “ Idha, bhikkhave, ekacco puggalo vivicceva kāmehi vivicca akusalehi dhammehi savitakkaṁ savicāraṁ vivekajaṁ pītisukhaṁ paṭhamaṁ jhānaṁ upasampajja viharati. So tadassādeti, taṁ nikāmeti, tena ca vittiṁ āpajjati. Tattha ṭhito tadadhimutto tabbahula-vihārī aparihīno kālaṁ kurumāno brahmakāyikānaṁ devānaṁ sahabyataṁ upapajjati. Brahmakāyikānaṁ, bhikkhave, devānaṁ kappo āyuppamāṇaṁ. Tattha puthujjano yāvatāyukaṁ ṭhatvā yāvatakaṁ tesaṁ devānaṁ āyuppamāṇaṁ taṁ sabbaṁ khepetvā nirayampi gacchati tiracchānayonimpi gacchati pettivisayampi gacchati. Bhagavato pana sāvako tattha yāvatāyukaṁ ṭhatvā yāvatakaṁ tesaṁ devānaṁ āyuppamāṇaṁ taṁ sabbaṁ khepetvā tasmiṁyeva bhave parinibbāyati. Ayaṁ kho, bhikkhave, viseso ayaṁ adhippayāso idaṁ nānākaraṇaṁ sutavato ariyasāvakassa assutavatā puthujjanena, yadidaṁ gatiyā upapattiyā sati.”

Translated: “There is the case where an individual, withdrawn from sensuality (kāma), withdrawn from akusala, enters & remains in the first jhāna: rapture & pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. He savors that, longs for that, and finds satisfaction through that. Staying there—fixed on that, dwelling there often, not losing the jhāna—then when he dies, he is born with the devas of Brahma’s retinue. The devas of Brahma’s retinue, monks, have a life span of an eon. A run-of-the-mill person, having stayed there, having used up all the life-span of those devas, goes to hell, to the animal realm, or the state of the hungry ghosts. But a disciple of the Blessed One, having stayed there, having used up all the life-span of those devas, attains Parinibbāna. This, monks, is the difference, this the distinction, this the distinguishing factor, between a Noble disciple and a normal person who had not heard the Noble Truths (assutavatā puthujjanena), in regards to the gati and birth.”

When one attains the first Ariya jhāna, one has become an Anāgāmī. He/she will be born in that Brahma realm and attain Parinibbāna there, as stated in the above sutta.

In other words, kāma rāga must be REMOVED entirely to get to the first Ariya jhāna. It is only temporarily suppressed (vikkhambana pahāna) for the anāriya jhāna.

A Sotāpanna who gets to the first anāriya jhāna has not removed kāma rāga. But he/she will not come back to the kāma loka (will get the Anāgāmi phala moment in the Brahma loka and attain Nibbāna there). So, he/she is still an Anāgāmi (“na” + “āgami” or not coming back).

Even some followers of Waharaka Thero in Sri Lanka do not seem to understand this point. However, Waharaka Thero has explained this in the following short desanā (in Sinhala): “WebLink: Ariya and Anāriya Jhāna (Audio).”