Jhāna and the Supramundane


The Way of Wisdom


The goal of the Buddhist path, complete and permanent liberation from suffering, is to be achieved by practising the full threefold discipline of morality (sīla) concentration (samādhi) and wisdom (paññā). The mundane jhānas, comprising the four fine-material jhānas and the four immaterial jhānas, pertain to the stage of concentration, which they fulfil to an eminent degree. However, taken by themselves, these states do not ensure complete deliverance, for they are incapable of cutting off the roots of suffering. The Buddha teaches that the cause of suffering, the driving power behind the cycle of rebirths, is the defilements with their three unwholesome roots - greed, hatred and delusion. Concentration of the absorption level, no matter to what heights it is pursued, only suppresses the defilements, but cannot destroy their latent seeds. Thence bare mundane jhāna, even when sustained, cannot by itself terminate the cycle of rebirths. To the contrary, it may even perpetuate the round. For if any fine-material or immaterial jhāna is held to with clinging, it will bring about a rebirth in that particular plane of existence corresponding to its own kammic potency, which can then be followed by a rebirth in some lower realm.


What is required to achieve complete deliverance from the cycle of rebirths is the eradication of the defilements. Since the most basic defilement is ignorance (avijjā), the key to liberation lies in developing its direct opposite, namely wisdom (paññā). Since wisdom presupposes a certain proficiency in concentration it is inevitable that jhāna comes to claim a place in its development. This place, however, is not fixed and invariable, but as we will see allows for differences depending on the individual meditator’s disposition.


Fundamental to the discussion in this chapter is a distinction between two terms crucial to Theravada philosophical exposition, „mundane“ (lokiya) and „supramundane“ (lokuttara). The term „mundane“ applies to all phenomena comprised in the world (loka) - to subtle states of consciousness as well as matter, to virtue as well as evil, to meditative attainments as well as sensual engrossments. The term „supramundane,“ in contrast, applies exclusively to that which transcends the world, that is, the nine supramundane states: Nibbāna, the four noble paths (magga) leading to Nibbāna, and their corresponding fruits (phala) which experience the bliss of Nibbāna.


Wisdom has the specific characteristic of penetrating the true nature of phenomena. It penetrates the particular and general features of things through direct cognition rather than discursive thought. Its function is „to abolish the darkness of delusion which conceals the individual essences of states“ and its manifestation is „non-delusion.“ Since the Buddha says that one whose mind is concentrated knows and sees things as they are, the proximate cause of wisdom is concentration (Vism.438; pp.481).


The wisdom instrumental in attaining liberation is divided into two principal types: insight knowledge (vipassanāñāna) and the knowledge pertaining to the supramundane paths (maggañāna). The first is the direct penetration of the three characteristics of conditioned phenomena - impermanence, suffering and non-self.[1] It takes as its objective sphere the five aggregates (pancakkhandhā) - material form, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness. Because insight knowledge takes the world of conditioned formations as its object, it is regarded as a mundane form of wisdom. Insight knowledge does not itself directly eradicate the defilements, but serves to prepare the way for the second type of wisdom, the wisdom of the supramundane paths, which emerges when insight has been brought to its climax. The wisdom of the path, occurring in four distinct stages (to be discussed below), simultaneously realises Nibbāna, fathoms the Four Noble Truths, and cuts off the defilements. This wisdom is called „supramundane“ because it rises up from the world of the five aggregates to realise the state transcendent to the world, Nibbāna.


The Buddhist disciple, striving for deliverance, begins the development of wisdom by first securely establishing its roots - purified moral discipline and concentration. He then learns and masters the basic material upon which wisdom is to work - the aggregates, elements, sense bases, dependent arising, the Four Noble Truths, etc. He commences the actual practice of wisdom by cultivating insight into the impermanence, suffering and non-self aspect of the five aggregates. When this insight reaches its apex it issues in supramundane wisdom, the right view factor of the Noble Eightfold Path, which turns from conditioned formations to the unconditioned Nibbāna and thereby eradicates the defilements.

The Two Vehicles


The Theravada tradition recognises two alternative approaches to the development of wisdom, between which practitioners are free to choose according to their aptitude and propensity. These two approaches are the vehicle of serenity (samathayāna) and the vehicle of insight (vipassanāyāna). The meditators who follow them are called, respectively, the samathayānika, „one who makes serenity his vehicle,“ and the vipassanāyānika, „one who makes insight his vehicle.“ Since both vehicles, despite their names, are approaches to developing insight, to prevent misunderstanding the latter type of meditator is sometimes called a suddhavipassanāyānika, „one who makes bare insight his vehicle,“ or a sukkhavipassaka, „a dry-insight worker.“ Though all three terms appear initially in the commentaries rather than in the suttas, the recognition of the two vehicles seems implicit in a number of canonical passages.


The samathayānika is a meditator who first attains access concentration or one of the eight mundane jhānas, then emerges and uses his attainment as a basis for cultivating insight until he arrives at the supramundane path. In contrast, the vipassanāyānika does not attain mundane jhāna prior to practising insight contemplation, or if he does, does not use it as an instrument for cultivating insight. Instead, without entering and emerging from jhāna, he proceeds directly to insight contemplation on mental and material phenomena and by means of this bare insight he reaches the noble path. For both kinds of meditator the experience of the path in any of its four stages always occurs at a level of jhānic intensity and thus necessarily includes supramundane jhāna under the heading of right concentration (sammā samādhi), the eighth factor of the Noble Eightfold Path.


The classical source for the distinction between the two vehicles of serenity and insight is the Visuddhi-Magga where it is explained that when a meditator begins the development of wisdom „if, firstly, his vehicle is serenity, [he] should emerge from any fine-material or immaterial jhāna except the base consisting of neither-perception-nor-non-perception, and he should discern, according to characteristic, function, etc. the jhāna factors consisting of applied thought, etc. and the states associated with them“ (Vism.557; PP.679-80). Other commentarial passages allow access concentration to suffice for the vehicle of serenity, but the last immaterial jhāna is excluded because its factors are too subtle to be discerned. The meditator whose vehicle is pure insight, on the other hand, is advised to start directly by discerning material and mental phenomena, beginning with the four elements, without utilising a jhāna for this purpose (Vism.558; PP.680).Thus the samathayānika first attains access concentration or mundane jhāna and then develops insight knowledge, by means of which he reaches the supramundane path containing wisdom under the heading of right view and supramundane jhāna under the heading of right concentration. The vipassanāyānika in contrast, skips over mundane jhāna and goes directly into insight contemplation. When he reaches the end of the progression of insight knowledge he arrives at the supramundane path which, as in the previous case, brings together wisdom with supramundane jhāna. This jhāna counts as his accomplishment of serenity.


For a meditator following the vehicle of serenity the attainment of jhāna fulfils two functions: first, it produces a basis of mental purity and inner collectedness needed for undertaking the work of insight contemplation; and second, it serves as an object to be examined with insight in order to discern the three characteristics of impermanence, suffering and non-self. Jhāna accomplishes the first function by providing a powerful instrument for overcoming the five hindrances. As we have seen, for wisdom to arise the mind must first be concentrated well, and to be concentrated well it must be freed from the hindrances, a task accomplished pre-eminently by the attainment of jhāna. Though access concentration will keep the hindrances at bay, jhāna will ensure that they are removed to a much safer distance.


In their capacity for producing concentration the jhānas are called the basis (pāda) for insight, and that particular jhāna a meditator enters and emerges from before commencing his practice of insight is designated his pādakajjhāna, the basic or foundational jhāna. Insight cannot be practised while absorbed in jhāna, since insight meditation requires investigation and observation, which are impossible when the mind is immersed in one-pointed absorption. But after emerging from the jhāna the mind is cleared of the hindrances, and the stillness and clarity that then result conduce to precise, penetrating insight.


The jhānas also enter into the samathayānika’s practice in second capacity, that is, as objects for scrutinization by insight. The practice of insight consists essentially in the examination of mental and physical phenomena to discover their marks of impermanence, suffering and non-self. The jhānas a meditator attains provide him with a readily available and strikingly clear object in which to seek out the three characteristics. After emerging from a jhāna the meditator will proceed to examine the jhānic consciousness and to discern the way it exemplifies the three universal marks. This process is called sammasanañāna. „comprehension knowledge,“ and the jhāna subjected to such a treatment is termed the sammasitajjhāna, „the comprehended jhāna“ (Vism. 607-11; PP.706-10). Though the basic jhāna and the comprehended jhāna will often be the same, the two do not necessarily coincide. A meditator cannot practise comprehension on a jhāna higher than he is capable of attaining, but one who uses a higher jhāna as his pādakajjhāna can still practise insight comprehension on a lower jhāna which he has previously attained and mastered. This admitted difference between the pādakajjhāna and the sammasitajjhāna leads to discrepant theories about the supramundane concentration of the noble path, as we will see.


Whereas the sequence of training undertaken by the samathayānika meditator is unproblematic, the vipassanāyānika’s approach presents the difficulty of accounting for the concentration he uses to provide a basis for insight. Concentration is needed in order to see and know things as they are, but without access concentration or jhāna, what concentration can he use? The solution to this problem is found in a type of concentration distinct from the access and absorption concentrations pertaining to the vehicle of serenity, called „momentary concentration“ (khanika samādhi). Despite its name, momentary concentration does not signify a single moment of concentration amidst a current of distracted thoughts, but a dynamic concentration which flows from object to object in the ever-changing flux of phenomena, retaining a constant degree of intensity and collectedness sufficient to purify the mind of the hindrances. Momentary concentration arises in the samathayānika simultaneously with his post-jhānic attainment of insight, but for the vipassanāyānika it develops naturally and spontaneously in the course of his insight practice without his having to fix the mind upon a single exclusive object. Thus the follower of the vehicle of insight does not omit concentration altogether from his training, but develops it in a different manner from the practitioner of serenity. Without gaining jhāna he goes directly into contemplation on the five aggregates and by observing them constantly from moment to moment acquires momentary concentration as an accompaniment of his investigations. This momentary concentration fulfils the same function as the basic jhāna of the serenity vehicle, providing the foundation of mental clarity needed for insight to emerge.

Supramundane Jhāna


The climax in the development of insight is the attainment of the four supramundane paths and fruits. Each path is a momentary peak experience directly apprehending Nibbāna and permanently cutting off certain defilements. These defilements are generally grouped into a set of ten „fetters“ (samyojana) which keep beings chained to the round of rebirths. The first path, called the path of stream-entry (sotāpatti) because it marks the entry into the stream of the Dhamma, eradicates the first three fetters - the false view of self, doubt, and clinging to rites and rituals. The disciple who has reached stream - entry has limited his future births to a maximum of seven in the happy realms of the human and heavenly worlds, after which he will attain final deliverance. But an ardent disciple may progress to still higher stages in the same life in which he reaches stream-entry, by making an aspiration for the next higher path and again undertaking the development of insight with the aim of reaching that path.


The next supramundane path is that of the once-returner (sakadāgāmi). This path does not eradicate any fetters completely, but it greatly attenuates sensual desire and ill will. The once-returner is so called because he is bound to make an end of suffering after returning to this world only one more time. The third path, that of the non-returner (anāgāmi) utterly destroys the sensual desire and ill will weakened by the preceding path. The non-returner is assured that he will never again take rebirth in the sense sphere; if he does not penetrate higher he will be reborn spontaneously in the Pure Abodes and there reach final Nibbāna. The highest path, the path of Arahatship, eradicates the remaining five fetters - desire for existence in the fine-material and immaterial spheres, conceit, restlessness and ignorance. The Arahat has completed the development of the entire path taught by the Buddha; he has reached the end of rebirths and can sound his „lion’s roar“: „Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what was to be done has been done, there is nothing further beyond this.“


Each path is followed immediately by the supramundane experience of fruition, which results from the path, comes in the same four graded stages, and shares the path’s world-transcending character. But whereas the path performs the active function of cutting off defilements, fruition simply enjoys the bliss and peace that result when the path has completed its task. Also, where the path is limited to a single moment of consciousness, the fruition that follows immediately on the path endures for two or three moments. And while each of the four paths occurs only once and can never be repeated, fruition remains accessible to the noble disciple at the appropriate level. He can resort to it as a special meditative state called fruition attainment (phalasamāpatti) for the purpose of experiencing nibbānic bliss here and now (Vism.699-702; PP.819-24).


The supramundane paths and fruits always arise as states of jhānic consciousness They occur as states of jhāna because they contain within themselves the jhāna factors elevated to an intensity corresponding to that of the jhāna factors in the mundane jhānas. Since they possess the jhāna factors these states are able to fix upon their object with the force of full absorption. Thence, taking the absorptive force of the jhāna factors as the criterion, the paths and fruits may be reckoned as belonging to either the first, second, third or fourth jhāna of the fourfold scheme, or to the first, second, third, fourth or fifth jhāna of the fivefold scheme.


The basis for the recognition of a supramundane type of jhāna goes back to the suttas, especially to the section of „The Great Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness“ where the Buddha defines right concentration of the Noble Eightfold Path by the standard formula for the four jhānas (D.ii,313). However, it is in the Abhidhamma that the connection between the jhānas, paths and fruits comes to be worked out with great intricacy of detail. The Dhammasanganī, in its section on states of consciousness, expounds each of the path and fruition states of consciousness as occasions, first, of one or another of the four jhānas in the fourfold scheme, and then again as occasions of one or another of the five jhānas in the fivefold scheme (Dhs.74-86). Standard Abhidhammic exposition, as formalised in the synoptical manuals of Abhidhamma, employs the fivefold scheme and brings each of the paths and fruits into connection with each of the five jhānas. In this way the eight types of supramundane consciousness - the path and fruition consciousness of stream-entry, the once-returner, the non-returner and arahatship-proliferate to forty types of supramundane consciousness, since any path or fruit can occur at the level of any of the five jhānas. It should be noted, however, that there are no paths and fruits conjoined with the immaterial attainments, the reason being that supramundane jhāna is presented solely from the standpoint of its factorial constitution, which for the immaterial attainments and the fifth jhāna is identical - equanimity and one-pointedness.


The fullest treatment of the supramundane jhānas in the authoritative Pali literature can be found in the Dhammasanganī read in conjunction with its commentary, the Atthasālini. The Dhammasanganī opens its analysis of the first wholesome supramundane consciousness with the words.


On the occasion when one develops supramundane jhāna which is emancipating, leading to the demolition (of existence), for the abandonment of views, for reaching the first plane, secluded from sense pleasures … one enters and dwells in the first jhāna. [Dhs.72]


The Atthasālini explains the word lokuttara, which we have, been translating „supramundane,“ as meaning „it crosses over the world, it transcends the world, it stands having surmounted and overcome the world.“ It glosses the phrase „one develops jhāna“ thus: „One develops, produces, cultivates absorption jhāna lasting for a single thought-moment.“ This gloss shows us two things about the consciousness of the path: that it occurs as a jhāna at the level of full absorption and that this absorption of the path lasts for only a single thought-moment. The word „emancipating“ (niyyānika) is explained to mean that this jhāna „goes out“ from the world, from the round of existence, the phrase „leading to demolition“ (apacayagāmi) that it demolishes and dismantles the process of rebirth (Dhs.A.259).


This last phrase points to a striking difference between mundane and supramundane jhāna. The Dhammasanganī’s exposition of the former begins: „On the occasion when one develops the path for rebirth in the fine-material sphere … one enters and dwells in the first jhāna“ [my italics]. Thus, with this statement, mundane jhāna is shown to sustain the round of rebirths; it is a wholesome kamma leading ta renewed existence. But the supramundane jhāna of the path does not promote the continuation of the round. To the contrary, it brings about the round’s dismantling and demolition, as the Atthasālini shows with an illustrative simile:


The wholesome states of the three planes are said to lead to accumulation because they build up and increase death and rebirth in the round. But not this. Just as when one man has built up a wall eighteen feet high another might take a club and go along demolishing it, so this goes along demolishing and dismantling the deaths and rebirths built up by the wholesome kammas of the three planes by bringing about a deficiency in their conditions. Thus it leads to demolition.[2]


Supramundane jhāna is said to be cultivated „for the abandoning of views.“ This phrase points to the function of the first path, which is to eradicate the fetters. The supramundane jhāna of the first path cuts off the fetter of personality view and all speculative views derived from it. The Atthasālini points out that here we should understand that it abandons not only wrong views but other unwholesome states as well, namely, doubt, clinging to rites and rituals, and greed, hatred and delusion strong enough to lead to the plane of misery. The commentary explicates „for reaching the first plane“ as meaning for attaining the fruit of stream-entry.


Besides these, several other differences between mundane and supramundane jhāna may be briefly noted. First, with regard to their object, the mundane jhānas have as object a conceptual entity such as the counterpart sign of the kasinas or, in the case of the divine abodes, sentient beings. In contrast, for the supramundane jhāna of the paths and fruits the object is exclusively Nibbāna. With regard to their predominant tone, in mundane jhāna the element of serenity prevails, while the supramundane jhāna of the paths and fruits brings serenity and insight into balance. Wisdom is present as right view and serenity as right concentration, both functioning together in perfect harmony, neither one exceeding the other.


This difference in prevailing tone leads into a difference in function or activity between the two kinds of jhāna. Both the mundane and supramundane are jhānas in the sense of closely attending (upanijjhāna), but in the case of mundane jhāna this close attention issues merely in absorption into the object, an absorption that can only suppress the defilements temporarily. In the supramundane jhāna, particularly of the four paths, the coupling of close attention with wisdom brings the exercise of four functions at a single moment. These four functions each apply to one of the Four Noble Truths. The path penetrates the first noble truth by fully understanding suffering; it penetrates the second noble truth by abandoning craving, the origin of suffering; it penetrates the third noble truth by realising Nibbāna, the cessation of suffering; and it penetrates the fourth noble truth be developing the Noble Eightfold Path that leads to the end of suffering. Buddhaghosa illustrates this with the simile of a lamp, which also performs four tasks simultaneously: it burns the wick, dispels darkness, makes light appear, and consumes oil (Vism.690; PP.808).

The Jhānic Level of the Path and Fruit


When the paths and fruits are assigned to the level of the four or five jhānas, the question arises as to what factor determines their particular level of jhānic intensity. In other words, why do the path and fruit arise for one meditator at the level of the first jhāna, for another at the level of the second jhāna, and so forth? The commentaries present three theories concerning the determination of the jhānic level of the path, apparently deriving from the lineages of ancient teachers (Vism.666-67; PP.778-80. Dhs.A.271-74). The first holds that it is the basic jhāna, i.e. the jhāna used as a basis for the insight leading to emergence in immediate proximity to the path, that governs the difference in the jhānic level of the path. A second theory says that the difference is governed by the aggregates made the objects of insight on the occasion of insight leading to emergence. A third theory holds that it is the personal inclination of the meditator that governs the difference.


According to the first theory the path arisen in a dry-insight meditator who lacks jhāna, and the path arisen in one who possesses a jhāna attainment but does not use it as a basis for insight, and the path arisen by comprehending formations after emerging from the first jhāna, are all paths of the first jhāna only. When the path is produced after emerging from the second, third, fourth and fifth jhānas (of the fivefold system) and using these as the basis for insight, then the path pertains to the level of the jhāna used as a basis - the second, third, fourth or fifth. For a meditator using an immaterial jhāna as basis the path will be a fifth jhāna path. Thus in this first theory, when formations are comprehended by insight after emerging from a basic jhāna, then it is the jhāna attainment emerged from at the point nearest to the path, i. e. just before insight leading to emergence is reached, that makes the path similar in nature to itself.


According to the second theory the path that arises is similar in nature to the states which are being comprehended with insight at the time insight leading to emergence occurs. Thus if the meditator, after emerging from a meditative attainment, is comprehending with insight sense-sphere phenomena or the constituents of the first jhāna, then the path produced will occur at the level of the first jhāna. On this theory, then, it is the comprehended jhāna (sammasitajjhāna) that determines the jhānic quality of the path. The one qualification that must be added is that a meditator cannot contemplate with insight a jhāna higher than he is capable of attaining.


According to the third theory, the path occurs at the level of whichever jhāna the meditator wishes - either at the level of the jhāna he has used as the basis for insight or at the level of the jhāna he has made the object of insight comprehension. In other words, the jhānic quality of the path accords with his personal inclination. However, mere wish alone is not sufficient. For the path to occur at the jhānic level wished for, the mundane jhāna must have been either made the basis for insight or used as the object of insight comprehension.


The difference between the three theories can be understood through a simple example.[3] If a meditator reaches the supramundane path by contemplating with insight the first jhāna after emerging from the fifth jhāna, then according to the first theory his path will belong to the fifth jhāna, while according to the second theory it will belong to the first jhāna. Thus these two theories are incompatible when a difference obtains between basic jhāna and comprehended jhāna. But according to the third theory, the path becomes of whichever jhāna the meditator wishes, either the first or the fifth. Thus this doctrine does not necessarily clash with the other two.


Buddhaghosa himself does not make a decision among these three theories. He only points out that in all three doctrines, beneath their disagreements, there is the recognition that the insight immediately preceding the supramundane path determines the jhānic character of the path. For this insight is the proximate and principal cause for the arising of the path, so whether it be the insight leading to emergence near the basic jhāna or that occurring through the contemplated jhāna or that fixed by the meditator’s wish, it is in all cases this final phase of insight that gives definition to the supramundane path. Since the fruition that occurs immediately after the path has an identical constitution to the path, its own supramundane jhāna is determined by the path. Thus a first jhāna path produces a first jhāna fruit, and so forth for the remaining jhānas.

 Home Oben Zum Index Zurueck Voraus

[1]Anicca, dukkha anatā.

[2]Dhs.A 259. See Expositor. ii.289-90.

[3]Dhs.A.274. See Expositor, ii.310.