Step Seven – Self Alone, Ox Forgotten
The Fourth Dharma Realm
Astride the Ox, I reach home. I am serene. The Ox too can rest. The dawn has come. In blissful repose, Within my thatched dwelling I have abandoned the whip and ropes.
Self Alone, Ox Forgotten
Mindfulness of Mind Objects
The fourth dharma realm is the dharma realm of the Arhats/Arahants (Sanskrit/Pali).
The central practice of this dharma realm is cultivation of the four immaterial attainments, the antidote for the desire to be re-born in the formless world (the seventh fetter).
Here we see the primary split between Mahayana and Theravada teachings. The Arahant is a fully enlightened being, a Buddha, under the Theravada teachings but a dweller of the fourth dharma realm in the Mahayana teachings. As a being of the fourth dharma realm, his or her enlightenment is not fully complete, according to the Mahayana teachings.
The Mahayana teaches that the Arhat/Arahant has liberated his or her self, but cannot liberate others.
Which seems nonsensical, since the Buddha said an Arahant is one who has destroyed all ten fetters and has attained anuttara samyak sambodhi, full and complete liberation.
The traditional commentaries on the seventh stage represented by the Ox-Herding pictures say that this level is reached only by those who have passed many koans and have attained a certain, but not total, degree of enlightenment. At this point, Master Yasutani says that further koan study is useless. The quest for the ox has ended because the empty true self has been seen, tamed, ridden home, and the quest for the ox has been forgotten.
True meditation begins with the first jhana (Sanskrit dhyana). We feel that we are meditating as we practice Present Moment Awareness, metta, and Silent Present Moment Awareness. However, those steps produce the mindfulness needed for true meditation.
We feel that we have gone into deeper meditation as we experience the breath at increasingly subtle levels until it disappears completely and we experience the equanimity of the Still Forest Pool. Yet, this is a prelude to the true meditation that lies ahead.
When the nimitta appears, we will want to congratulate ourselves on achieving such a remarkable state, but Ajahn Brahm says we still haven’t begun true meditation, the right concentration of the eightfold path.
When the nimitta is polished and sustained, the explosion of the first jhana makes the unmistakeable announcement that meditation has truly begun.
The quality of our practice, our adherence to the precepts, and our diligence, determine how far we go into the jhanas and the immaterial attainments.
Venerable Ajahn Brahm describes each jhana and immaterial attainment in Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond.
Steps thirteen through sixteen – cultivation of the immaterial attainments
The eleven sense-sphere or desire realms of the Theravada school and the sixteen form or fine material realms of that school total twenty seven so there are four more.
These four dharma realms are in the immaterial realm and are the “objective counterparts” of the four immaterial attainments. These four highest realms are named accordingly:
The realm of infinite space; (4);
The realm of infinite consciousness (3);
The realm of nothingness (2); and
The realm of neither-perception-nor-non-perception (1).
Again, Nirvana/Nibbana is not counted as the first dharma realm in the Theravada school; it is not a dharma realm under the teachings of the Buddha as recorded in the Pali Canon.
Thus we see that development of the four jhanas leads to rebirth in the form/fine-material realm whereas development of the four immaterial attainments leads to rebirth in the formless/immaterial realm. And that development of all four jhanas and all four immaterial attainments falls short of Nibbana.
The Buddha said that the final four steps of Tranquil Wisdom meditation, i.e., steps thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen, are the stages of contemplating infinite space, infinite consciousness, nothingness, and neither perception nor nonperception, respectively. These final four steps, he said, also constitute the practice of the fourth foundation of mindfulness, i.e., mindfulness of mind objects.
However, the steps of experiencing infinite space, infinite consciousness, nothingness, and neither perception nor nonperception are supplied to The Anapanasati Sutta by another sutta, i.e., The Anupada Sutta. It is scholars of the Pali Canon that have made the connection between the two suttas.
The Buddha in The Anapanasati Sutta used the words “impermanence, fading away, cessation, and relinquishment” as the objects of contemplation of the four final steps. However, in The Anupada Sutta, he used the terms “infinite space, infinite consciousness, nothingness and neither perception nor nonperception” so those terms are typically used in commentaries on The Anapanasati Sutta.
There is no direct one-to-one correspondence between the terms “impermanence, fading away, cessation, and relinquishment” as used in The Anapanasati Sutta and the corresponding terms “infinite space, infinite consciousness, nothingness and neither perception nor nonperception” as used in The Anupada Sutta.
Venerable U. Vimalaramsi explains that “impermanence” includes both “infinite space” and “infinite consciousness.” The term “fading away” includes “nothingness.” The term “cessation” includes “neither perception nor nonperception.” The term “relinquishment” thus includes the cessation of all thoughts and feelings, Nirvana.
Venerable U. Vimalaramsi thus teaches that the final four steps correspond to the four immaterial attainments and Nirvana and Venerable Ajahn Brahm says that the four final steps are not the four immaterial attainments because the four immaterial attainments are experienced after the four jhanas in step twelve of the sixteen steps of Tranquil Wisdom meditation.
He concludes that the final four steps are for contemplation with super power mindfulness after the meditator has emerged from the four jhanas and the four immaterial attainments.
These two understandings of the teachings of the Buddha can be reconciled from a Zen Sect perspective. The Buddha used words to point at the moon and it is easy to fall into the quagmire of words and to miss the moon.
It doesn’t matter if all four jhanas and all four immaterial attainments arrive at step twelve of the sixteen step meditation as taught by Venerable Ahajn Brahm, or if they are spread out (the first jhana of joy arising at step five, the second jhana of serene happiness arising at step six, the third jhana of tranquility arising at step seven, the fourth jhana of equanimity arising at step eight, and the four immaterial attainments arising at steps thirteen through sixteen) as taught by Venerable. U. Vimalaramsi.
It doesn’t matter because one teacher reports his experiences and another teacher reports his and we will never find the Buddha outside ourselves.
No doubt there are other teachers with still further explanations of the Buddha’s sermon as recorded in The Anapanasati Sutta. All we can do is to follow the steps as best we can, and forget about ambiguities caused by words. We can study both teachers, digest their words, and aim for the moon that both of them, as well as the Buddha, want us to see.
Obviously, practice of this sixteen step meditation requires “diligent, ardent and resolute” practice, as the Buddha so often says in the suttas/sutras.
The Buddha’s words were open to interpretation and he probably wanted it to be that way, understanding that no two people would practice the sixteen steps in the same way and have the same experience at each of the steps.
It’s easy to see how Venerable U. Vimalaramsi could teach that the joy and serenity of steps five and six could be the first and second jhanas, respectively, and how Venerable Ajahn Brahm could teach that the joy and serenity of those two steps are merely harbingers of the real joy and serenity that arrive at step twelve. (The Buddha called the twelfth step “liberating the mind”).
It’s just as easy to see how Venerable U. Vimalaramsi could teach that the tranquility and equanimity of steps seven and eight could be the third and fourth jhanas, respectively, and how Venerable Ajahn Brahm could teach that the tranquility and equanimity of those two steps are merely precursers of the real tranquility and equanimity that arrive at step twelve.
The Buddha did not specify which of the sixteen steps represented attainment of a jhana or an immaterial attainment, so both teachers can present convincing arguments.
Our practice is to follow the sixteen steps and to investigate our own experience as to whether or not we attained the jhanas and immaterial attainments.
The two teachers even diverge on which steps are included in the classic sixteen step formulation of the sutta.
Ajahn Brahm refers to the first step as a preliminary, preparatory step that does not count as the first step of the sixteen steps.
This can get quite confusing since the two commentaries diverge from the very beginning. However, in order to make some sense of the divergence, we offer the following step-by-step comparison of the two interpretations of the sutta.
Venerable U. Vimalaramsi: Step 1 is going to a secluded spot and practicing mindfulness.
Venerable Ajahn Brahm: Going to a secluded spot and practicing mindfulness is a preliminary step and not one of the sixteen steps. Mindfulness is practiced by following the two-step procedure of present moment awareness and silent present moment awareness.
Ven. UV: Steps 2 and 3 are watching the long and short breaths. It would seem that this is one step, not two, but virtually every Buddhist scholar refers to the sixteen steps of the Anapanasati sutta. So if this is just one step, then there are only fifteen steps so watching long and short breaths must be interpreted as covering two steps.
Ven. AB: Step 1 is watching the long breaths and Step 2 is watching the short ones, or vice versa. Step 3 is full sustained attention on the breath.
Ven. UV: Step 4 is a continuation of watching the long and short breaths as in steps 2 and 3 until tranquility arises. He emphasizes the importance of relaxing and letting go at this stage of meditation.
Ven. UV states in his explanation of the fourth step that no nimitta will arise if the Buddha’s instructions are followed carefully. This is a very obvious clash with the outlook of Ven. AB who contends that no jhana can appear unless a nimitta is first experienced, polished and sustained.
Ven. AB: Step 4 is the arising of the moment-by-moment awareness of the breath that arises naturally from full sustained attention on the whole body of the breath.
So at Step 4 the two teachers have pretty much arrived at the same place. They begin to sharply diverge at Step 5.
Ven. UV says that step 5 is the most important step of the sixteen steps – the arising of tranquility, the prerequisite to the arising of the jhanas. This is the equivalent of the eighth step as explained by Venerable AB.
Ven. AB says that joy (piti) arises at step 5 but that joy is not the joy of the first jhana.
Ven. UV says that steps 5 and 6 are the arising of the first two jhanas.
Ven. AB holds that step 6 is the arising of happiness (sukkha) but that no jhana state has yet arisen. This is the stage of “the beautiful breath.”
The third jhana arises at step 7 according to Ven. UV.
Step 7 is the breath becoming a mind object according to Ven. AB. This is the step where the breath of the beautiful breath is gone and only the beautiful remains, like the grin of the Cheshire cat.
The fourth jhana arises at step 8 under Ven. UV’s understanding.
Under Ven. AB’s understanding, when only the beauty remains, and that beauty alone is experienced for a considerable length of time, the mind eventually enters into a serene calmness that sets the stage for the appearance of a nimitta. He explains that step 8 is the Still Forest Pool of which his teacher Ajahn Chah spoke.
Steps 9-12 are not jhana steps in the teaching of Ven. UV. They are the steps of experiencing the mind, gladdening the mind, stilling the mind, and liberating the mind. Those are the same words the Buddha used to describe these steps.
Ven. AB teaches that the ninth step is the step where the nimitta, the sign of Nirvana, arises. The nimitta is the mind that is experienced. The tenth step, gladdening the mind, is one of polishing the nimitta to make it stronger. The eleventh step, sustaining the nimitta, ensures that the polished nimitta is sustainable, thereby ensuring that the jhanas will be reached.
Step 12 is the step, under the teachings of Ven. AB, where all of the jhanas as well as the immaterial attainments appear. However, a weak nimitta (which arises from weak following of the precepts; no nimitta at all will appear if the precepts are not followed) will probably fail to produce an experience of the first jhana.
As the polished nature and sustainable strength of the nimitta are enforced by prolonged polishing and strengthening at the tenth and eleventh steps, the meditator experiences the stages of jhana and immaterial attainments, in the order experienced by the Buddha, even all the way to Nirvana if the mind is truly pure, the five hindrances are overcome, and dependent origination is realized both forwards and backwards.
It follows that the final four steps, Steps 13-16, for Ven. AB are post-jhana and post-immaterial attainment stages of the meditation because the jhanas and immaterial attainments are experienced at step 12, if they are experienced.
The super power mindfulness developed by the jhana and immaterial attainment experience is harnessed to contemplate the four subjects that the Buddha refers to in the final four steps (impermanence, fading away, cessation, and relinquishment).
In the teachings of Ven. UV, the final four steps, Steps 13-16, are as follows:
Step 13: The first and second immaterial attainments (that of infinite space and infinite consciousness) arise from meditation on impermanence;
In the words of the Buddha:
He trains thus: ‘I shall breath in contemplating impermanence; He trains thus: ‘I shall breath out contemplating impermanence.’
Step 14: The third immaterial attainment (that of nothingness) arises from meditation on fading away;
In the words of the Buddha:
He trains thus: ‘I shall breath in contemplating fading away; He trains thus: ‘I shall breath out contemplating fading away.’
Step 15: The fourth immaterial attainment (that of neither perception nor non-perception) arises from meditation on cessation; and
In the words of the Buddha:
He trains thus: ‘I shall breath in contemplating cessation; He trains thus: ‘I shall breath out contemplating cessation.’
Step 16: Nirvana arises from meditation on relinquishment.
In the words of theBuddha:
He trains thus: ‘I shall breath in contemplating relinquishment; He trains thus: ‘I shall breath out contemplating relinquishment.’
Although not quite “Supramundane Nibbana,” this final stage of the meditation is “very close” to Nirvana, which arises only when dependent origination is seen backwards and forwards and when the stage of neither perception nor non-perception is transcended by cessation of perception and feeling.
To summarize, under Ven. AB, the jhanas and immaterial attainments arise at Step 12, if they arise at all, and the number of jhanas and immaterial attainments experienced depends upon the purity of the mind.
Under Ven. UV, the jhanas arise at steps 5 and 6 (the first two jhanas), 7 (third jhana), 8 (fourth jhana), and the four immaterial attainments arise at steps 13-16.
Ven. UV agrees with Ven. AB that no jhanas arise in the presence of a defiled mind, i.e., one that does not follow the precepts.
These rather striking differences in teachings arise from the fact, as already noted, that there are sixteen steps and only four jhanas and four immaterial attainments.
As mentioned earlier, the Buddha assigned no correlation to the sixteen steps and the jhanas and immaterial attainments so reasonable minds can assign different jhanas and immaterial attainments to different steps.
Does it matter? Probably not. As we have said before, after the first few steps the mind takes over and a natural flow from one step to the next begins. The “doer” gets out of the way and the diversity of consciousness becomes less and less diverse at each step with no input from the meditator.
It is helpful to study the words of both teachers. It helps us to realize that we need to overcome the tyranny of words and to see the moon that both teachers are pointing at.
The Buddha said that investigation was the second of the seven factors of enlightenment (the first factor being the development of mindfulness, which is what we do with the practices of Beginning and Intermediate Zen).
After each meditation, we are advised to investigate that meditation. Did we start thinking about the cold glass of chocolate soymilk that we are going to enjoy when the meditation is over? Or did we fondly remember that cold glass of chocolate soymilk that we enjoyed before beginning the meditation? If so, the first hindrance of sense desire prevented further progress. We did not follow our pre-meditation instruction to forget the past and the future.
We can also investigate the onset of the jhanas, if they appeared at all. Did we see a nimitta or did the jhanas appear without a nimitta?
We can reconcile the disparate commentaries on the sixteen steps in this way. It is readily apparent that Venerable Ajahn Brahm enters into the jhanas after seeing, polishing, and sustaining a nimitta.
Venerable U. Vimalaramsi enters into the jhanas at an earlier stage of his meditation and doesn’t require a nimitta in order to do so.
As we perform our own investigations, we will find, if we attain the jhanas at all, that some of us will do so on the twelfth step after seeing, polishing and sustaining a nimitta, and some of us will enter into the jhanas earlier, without benefit of a nimitta.
And if all of us were to then publish our commentaries on the sixteen steps, we would find a very wide divergence of opinion as to when the jhanas were first encountered and whether or not nimittas are necessary or not.
And all of us would be following the Buddha’s instructions to do the practices and to investigate our experiences. If a million of us follow the sixteen steps, there will be a million different experiences, and that’s why the Buddha did not link any particular jhana to any of the sixteen steps.
Venerable U. Vimalaramsi’s work has the advantage of including the entire text of the sutta, and Venerable Ajahn Brahm’s work has the advantage of practical teachings that make it easier to follow the sixteen steps.
As we read and re-read both of these works, we learn more with each re-reading.
And we recall that both of these teachers are Theravada teachers who pay little or no attention to the Ten Ox-Herding pictures of the Zen school.
Again, since the Buddha did not specify which of the sixteen steps represented attainment of a jhana or an immaterial attainment, both teachers can present convincing arguments as to which steps represent which jhana or immaterial attainment.
Our practice is to follow the sixteen steps and to investigate our own experience as to whether or not we attained the jhanas and immaterial attainments.
When we relate the Ten Ox-Herding pictures of the Zen sect to the ten dharma realms of the Mahayana school, we have a one-to-one correspondence.
When we relate the sixteen steps of Tranquil Wisdom meditation of the Theravada school to the Ten Ox-Herding pictures, we discover another very nice fit:
The four steps of Mindfulness of the Body relate to Catching the Ox, representing the rising of a sentient being from the dharma realm of animals to the dharma realm of the asuras. The peace we feel when cultivating mindfulness of the body counteracts the aggression of the fighting gods.
The four steps of Mindfulness of Feelings relate to Taming the Ox, representing the rising of a sentient being from the dharma realm of asuras to the dharma realm of humans. Since the dharma realm of humans is in the realm of desire, we count the happiness, serenity, tranquility and equanimity of these fifth through eighth steps as harbingers of the first four jhanas.
And we tame the ox by incorporating the precepts into our daily lives as we cultivate mindfulness of feelings.
The four steps of Mindfulness of the Mind relate to Riding the Ox Home, corresponding to the dharma realm of the gods of the desire realm.
The four steps of Mindfulness of Mind Objects relate to Self Alone, Ox Forgotten, corresponding to the the dharma realm of the Arhats. According to the teachings, the realm of the Arhats is the realm of form and is attainable only through cultivation of the four jhanas.
The realm of formlessness is attainable only through cultivation of the four immaterial attainments so such cultivation is the practice of the Arhat dharma realm.
The Buddha continued his meditation practice after his Great Enlightenment, thereby demonstrating that just as practice has no beginning, enlightenment has no ending. So even if we attain the jhanas and the immaterial attainments, our practice has not ended and it just doesn’t matter at which steps of the procedure we experienced them.
If we follow the position of venerable Ajahn Brahm, upon attaining one or more of the jhanas and one or more of the immaterial attainments if we first attained all four jhanas, during the twelfth step of the sixteen steps, the Buddha taught us to harness the mindfulness created by the experience of the twelfth step to investigate impermanence, fading away, cessation, and relinquishment as steps thirteen through sixteen.
Venerable Ajahn Brahm says there are many forms that the final four steps can take, because the Buddha said that the final four steps of the sixteen steps were the contemplation of mind objects and he gave four examples of mind objects. Specifically, he mentioned the contemplation of impermanence, fading away, cessation and relinquishment, but he did not rule out the contemplation of other mind objects as well.
To help us remember these sixteen steps, we can very briefly summarize them as follows:
Mindfulness of the body
1. Ever mindful, he breathes in, mindful, he breathes out. (Present moment awareness; silent present moment awareness)
2. He understands breathing in long, breathing out long. He understands, breathing in short, breathing out short.
3. Experiencing the whole body of the breath.
4. Tranquilizing the bodily formation.
Mindfulness of feelings
5. Experiencing joy.
6. Experiencing happiness.
7. Experiencing the mental formation. (cessation of breath)
8. Tranquilizing the mental formation. (the Still Forest Pool)
Mindfulness of the mind
9. Experiencing the mind.
10. Gladdening the mind.
11. Stilling the mind.
12. Liberating the mind.
Mindfulness of mind objects
13. Contemplating impermanence.
14. Contemplating fading away.
15. Contemplating cessation.
16. Contemplating relinquishment.
Happily, at the end of The Anapanasati Sutta, the Buddha explained that if all sixteen steps of the meditation technique taught in that sutta are followed, then the meditator will have practiced:
The foundation of mindfulness of the body by practicing the first four steps of the sixteen (step four of this course);
The foundation of mindfulness of feelings by practicing steps five through eight (step five of this course);
The foundation of mindfulness of the mind by practicing steps nine through twelve (step six of this course); and
The foundation of mindfulness of mind objects by practicing steps thirteen through sixteen (step seven of this course), thereby practicing all four foundations of mindfulness.
He further explained that, after a jhana experience, the seven factors of enlightenment will arise:
A first time upon investigation/contemplation of mindfulness of the body;
A second time upon investigation/contemplation of mindfulness of feelings;
A third time upon investigation/contemplation of mindfulness of mind; and
A fourth time upon investigation/contemplation of mindfulness of mind objects.
And Venerable Ajahn Brahm explains that we perform these investigations/contemplations with the super power mindfulness generated by the jhanas.
So by following all sixteen steps, we automatically practice the Four Foundations of Mindfulness and we automatically meet the Seven Factors of Enlightenment four times.
Both Venerables U. Vimalaramsi and Ajahn Brahm find that Tranquil Wisdom meditation is a full, complete practice, a practice that requires no supplementation with other practices, i.e., Tranquil Wisdom meditation is not just a samatha or calmness practice; it also includes vipassana or insight meditation.
As students, we can easily remember that we enter the world of form (the fine-material world), leaving behind the world of sense desire when we experience the jhanas.
That makes it easy to remember that we enter the immaterial world, leaving behind the fine-material world, when we perform the post-jhana contemplations of infinite space, infinite consciousness, nothingness and neither perception nor non-perception, or the four foundations of mindfulness, or other mind-objects, with the super power mindfulness generated by the jhanas.
The sixth and seventh fetters are fetters that prevent a non-returner from attaining Arhatship or Nirvana.
The sixth fetter is desire for existence in the world of form, the world attained through experience of the jhanas, and the seventh fetter is the desire for existence in the immaterial world, the world attained through the experience of the immaterial attainments.
For those of us mired in the sense-desire world who would be delighted to attain the jhanas to gain a glimpse of the world of form and even more delighted to experience the immaterial attainments to gain a glimpse of the immaterial world, it is sobering to contemplate that these aspirations are just two more fetters to be dropped.
So how do we know if we have attained the immaterial attainments? If we become even more calm after the fourth jhana…do we begin to understand impermanence, letting go of passions, cessation and relinquishment? Do we experience infinite space, infinite consciousness, nothingness and neither perception nor non-perception?
At this advanced level of mysticism, words are of little help. But if we are diligent, ardent and resolute in our practice of these sixteen steps, we will develop super powerful mindfulness, and Advanced Zen practice will be easy.