The Jhanas In Theravada Buddhist Meditation

Buddha, the Founder of Buddhism

by Henepola Gunaratana

All noble persons, as we saw, acquire supramundane jhana along with their attainment of the noble paths and fruits. The noble ones at each of the four stages of liberation, moreover, have access to the supramundane jhana of their respective fruition attainments, from the fruition attainment of stream-entry up to the fruition attainments of arahatship. It remains problematic, however to what extent they also enjoy the possession of mundane jhana.

To determine an answer to this question we will consult an early typology of seven types of noble disciples, which provides a more psychologically oriented way of classifying the eight noble individuals. A look at the explanation of these seven types will enable us to see the range of jhanic attainment reached by the noble disciples. On this basis we will proceed to assess the place of mundane jhana in the early Buddhist picture of the arahant, the perfected individual.

Seven Types of Disciples

The sevenfold typology is originally found in the Kitagiri Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya (M.i,477-79) and is reformulated in the Puggalapaññatti of the Abhidhamma Pitaka. This typology classifies the noble persons on the paths and fruits into seven types: the faith-devotee (saddhanusari), the one liberated by faith (saddhavimutta), the body-witness (kayasakkhi), the one liberated in both ways (ubhatobhagavimutta), the truth-devotee (dhammanusari), the one attained to understanding (ditthipatta), and the one liberated by wisdom (paññavimutta). The seven types may be divided into three general groups, each defined by the predominance of a particular spiritual faculty, The first two types are governed by a predominance of faith, the middle two by a predominance of concentration, and the last three by a predominance of wisdom. To this division, however, certain qualifications will have to made as we go along.

[1] The faith-devotee is explained the sutta thus:

Herein, monks, some person has not reached with his own (mental) body those peaceful immaterial deliverances transcending material form: nor after seeing with wisdom, have his cankers been destroyed.27 But he has a certain degree of faith in the Tathagata, a certain degree of devotion to him, and he has these qualities — the faculties of faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom. This person, monks, is called a faith-devotee. (M.i,479)
The Puggalapaññatti (p 182) defines the faith-devotee from a different angle as a disciple practicing for the fruit of stream-entry in whom the faculty of faith is predominant and who develops the noble path led by faith. It adds that when he is established in the fruit he becomes one liberated by faith. Although the sutta excluded the "peaceful immaterial attainments," i.e., the four immaterial jhana, from the faith-devotee's equipment, this implies nothing with regard to his achievement of the four lower mundane jhanas. It would seem that the faith-devotee can have previously attained any of the four fine-material jhanas before reaching the path, and can also be a dry-insight worker bereft of mundane jhana.

[2] The one liberated by faith is strictly and literally defined as a noble disciple at the six intermediate levels, from the fruit of stream-entry through to the path of arahatship, who lacks the immaterial jhanas and has a predominance of the faith faculty.

The Buddha explains the one liberated by faith as follows:

Herein, monks, some person has not reached with his own (mental) body those peaceful immaterial deliverances transcending material form; but having seen with wisdom, some of his cankers have been destroyed, and his faith in the Tathagata is settled, deeply rooted, well established. This person, monks, is called one liberated by faith. (M.i,478)

As in the case of the faith-devotee, the one liberated by faith, while lacking the immaterial jhanas, may still be an obtainer of the four mundane jhanas as well as a dry insight worker.

The Puggalapaññatti states (pp.184-85) that the person liberated by faith is one who understands the Four Noble Truths, has seen and verified by means of wisdom the teachings proclaimed by the Tathagata, and having seen with wisdom has eliminated some of his cankers. However, he has not done so as easily as the ditthipatta, the person attained to understanding, whose progress is easier due to his superior wisdom. The fact that the one liberated by faith has destroyed only some of this cankers implies that he has advanced beyond the first path but not yet reached the final fruit, the fruit of arahatship.28

[3] The body-witness is a noble disciple at the six intermediate levels, from the fruit of stream-entry to the path of arahatship, who has a predominance of the faculty of concentration and can obtain the immaterial jhanas. The sutta explanation reads:

And what person, monks is a body-witness? Herein, monks, some person has reached with his own (mental) body those peaceful immaterial deliverances transcending material form, and having seen with wisdom, some of his cankers having been destroyed. This person, monks, is called a body-witness. (M.i,478)
The Puggalapaññatti (p. 184) offers a slight variation in this phrasing, substituting "the eight deliverances" (atthavimokkha) for the sutta's "peaceful immaterial deliverances" (santa vimokkha aruppa). These eight deliverances consist of three meditative attainments pertaining to the fine-material sphere (inclusive of all four lower jhanas), the four immaterial jhanas, and the cessation of perception and feeling (saññavedayitanirodha) — the last a special attainment accessible only to those nonreturners and arahats who have also mastered the eight jhanas.29 The statement of the Puggalapaññatti does not mean either that the achievement of all eight deliverances is necessary to become a body-witness or that the achievement of the three lower deliverances is sufficient. What is both requisite and sufficient to qualify as a body-witness is the partial destruction of defilements coupled with the attainment of at least the lowest immaterial jhana. Thus the body witness becomes fivefold by way of those who obtain any of the four immaterial jhanas and the one who also obtains the cessation of perception and feeling.

[4] One who is liberated in both ways is an arahant who has completely destroyed the defilements and possesses the immaterial attainments. The commentaries explain the name "liberated in both ways" as meaning "through the immaterial attainment he is liberated from the material body and through the path (of arahatship) he is liberated from the mental body" (MA.ii,131). The sutta defines this type of disciple thus:

And what person, monks, is liberated in both ways? Herein, monks, someone has reached with his own (mental) body those peaceful immaterial deliverances transcending material form, and having seen with wisdom, his cankers are destroyed. This person, monks, is called liberated in both ways. (M.i,477)
The Puggalapaññatti (p.184) gives basically the same formula but replaces "immaterial deliverances" with "the eight deliverances." The same principle of interpretation that applied to the body-witness applies here: the attainment of any immaterial jhana, even the lowest, is sufficient to qualify a person as both-ways liberated. As the commentary to the Visuddhimagga says: "One who has attained arahatship after gaining even one [immaterial jhana] is liberated both ways" (Vism.T.ii,466). This type becomes fivefold by way of those who attain arahatship after emerging from one or another of the four immaterial jhanas and the one who attains arahatship after emerging from the attainment of cessation (MA:iii,131).

[5] The truth-devotee is a disciple on the first path in whom the faculty of wisdom is predominant. The Buddha explains the truth-devotee as follows:

Herein, monks, some person has not reached with his own (mental) body those peaceful immaterial deliverances transcending material form; nor, after seeing with wisdom, have his cankers been destroyed. But the teachings proclaimed by the Tathagata are accepted by him through mere reflection, and he has these qualities — the faculties of faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom. This person, monks, is called a truth-devotee. (M.i,479)
The Puggalapaññatti (p.185) defines the truth-devotee as one practicing for realization of the fruit of stream-entry in whom the faculty of wisdom is predominant, and who develops the path led by wisdom. It adds that when a truth-devotee is established in the fruit of stream-entry he becomes one attained to understanding, the sixth type. The sutta and Abhidhamma again differ as to emphasis, the one stressing lack of the immaterial jhanas, the other the ariyan stature. Presumably, he may have any of the four fine-material jhanas or be a bare-insight practitioner without any mundane jhana.

[6] The one attained to understanding is a noble disciple at the six intermediate levels who lacks the immaterial jhanas and has a predominance of the wisdom faculty. The Buddha explains:

And what person, monks, is the one attained to understanding? Herein, monks someone has not reached with his own mental body those peaceful immaterial deliverances transcending material form, but having seen with wisdom some of his cankers are destroyed, and the teachings proclaimed by the Tathagata have been seen and verified by him with wisdom. This person, monks, is called the one attained to understanding. (M.i,478)
The Puggalapaññatti (p.185) defines the one attained to understanding as a person who understands the Four Noble Truths, has seen and verified by means of wisdom the teachings proclaimed by the Tathagata, and having seen with wisdom has eliminated some of his cankers. He is thus the "wisdom counterpart" of the one liberated by faith, but progresses more easily than the latter by virtue of his sharper wisdom. Like his counterpart, he may possess any of the four mundane jhanas or may be a dry-insight worker.

[7] The one liberated by wisdom is an arahant who does not obtain the immaterial attainments. In the words of the sutta:

And what person, monks, is the one liberated by wisdom? Herein, monks, someone has not reached with his own (mental) body those peaceful material deliverances transcending material form, but having seen with wisdom his cankers are destroyed. This person, monks, is called one liberated by wisdom. (M.i,477-78)
The Puggalapaññatti's definition (p.185) merely replaces "immaterial deliverance" with "the eight deliverances." Though such arahats do not reach the immaterial jhanas it is quite possible for them to attain the lower jhanas. The sutta commentary in fact states that the one liberated by wisdom is fivefold by way of the dry-insight worker and the four who attain arahatship after emerging from the four jhanas.

It should be noted that the one liberated by wisdom is contrasted not with the one liberated by faith, but with the one liberated in both ways. The issue that divides the two types of arahant is the lack or possession of the four immaterial jhanas and the attainment of cessation. The person liberated by faith is found at the six intermediate levels of sanctity, not at the level of arahatship. When he obtains arahatship, lacking the immaterial jhanas, he becomes one liberated by wisdom even though faith rather that wisdom is his predominant faculty. Similarly, a meditator with predominance of concentration who possesses the immaterial attainments will still be liberated in both ways even if wisdom rather than concentration claims first place among his spiritual endowments, as was the case with the venerable Sariputta.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Source: The Jhanas In Theravada Buddhist Meditation by Henepola Gunaratana. The Wheel Publication No. 351/353 (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1988). Transcribed from the print edition in 1995 by Bill Petrow and Jane Yudelman under the auspices of the DharmaNet Dharma Book Transcription Project, with the kind permission of the Buddhist Publication Society. This book is an abridged version of the author's The Path of Serenity and Insight: An Explanation of the Buddhist Jhanas, copyright © 1985 Motilal Banarsidass, New Delhi, and is published in the Wheel series by arrangement with that publisher. Copyright © 1988 Buddhist Publication Society. Reproduced and reformatted from Access to Insight edition © 1995 For free distribution. This work may be republished, reformatted, reprinted, and redistributed in any medium. It is the author's wish, however, that any such republication and redistribution be made available to the public on a free and unrestricted basis and that translations and other derivative works be clearly marked as such.

Translate the Page

Search Hinduwebsite

Follow Us