Mindfulness of the Mind
Step Six – Riding the Ox Home
The Fifth Dharma Realm
Mounting the Ox, slowly I return homeward. The voice of my flute intones through the evening. Measuring with hand-beats the pulsating harmony, I direct the endless rhythm. Whoever hears this melody will join me.
Riding the Ox Home
The Buddha recited the ninth step of Tranquil Wisdom meditation as follows:
He trains thus: ‘I shall breath in experiencing the mind’; He trains thus: ‘I shall breath out experiencing the mind.’
As Venerable Ajahn Chah says, if we sit by A Still Forest Pool with any degree of agitation, the animals won’t come out for a drink. Only when we are as quiet as a pine tree by the pool will the animals come out.
After arriving at the Still Forest Pool, the eighth stage of the Tranquil Wisdom meditation, we sit in absolute equanimity, i.e, our mind is the Still Forest Pool, silent and unmoving. We await the appearance of a nimitta.
Nimitta is the sign of nirvana. We are in the neighborhood of nirvana when it appears. Its appearance is the ninth step.
A nimitta is the mind as seen by the mind, it is the mind experiencing itself. A pure and beautiful mind will experience a pure and beautiful nimitta. If we see a dull, lifeless, ugly nimitta, we know what our mind is.
If a nimitta fails to appear, that means that we have rushed through at least one of the first eight stages.
If we experience no nimitta, we will need to go back and practice, with enhanced patience, the stages we rushed through.
However, the Burmese masters teach that enlightenment may occur even in the absence of a nimitta. I have no idea what they are talking about so we are following the Buddha’s teachings even though it is entirely possible that the Burmese masters have discovered an alternative path that works.
Step ten – Polishing the nimitta
Once the nimitta appears, the tenth step is to “polish” it, in the words of Venerable Ajahn Brahm. His book, Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond describes how to stop the nimitta from wobbling, i.e., how to strengthen it before moving on to step eleven.
His instructions are quite helpful, because the Buddha’s recital of the tenth step is:
He trains thus: ‘I shall breath in gladdening the mind’; He trains thus: ‘I shall breath out gladdening the mind.’
Ajahn Brahm tells us how to gladden the mind.
Step eleven – Sustaining the nimitta
In step eleven, with the nimitta now stable, we sustain it by the techniques taught by Venerable Ajahn Brahm.
Again, Ajahn Brahm’s specific instructions are helpful. The Buddha’s explanation of the eleventh stage is:
He trains thus: ‘I shall breath in stilling the mind’; He trains thus: ‘I shall breath out stilling the mind.’
Step twelve – Entering into the jhanas
Step twelve, in the Buddha’s words:
He trains thus: ‘I shall breath in liberating the mind’; He trains thus: ‘I shall breath out liberating the mind.’
According to Venerable Ajahn Brahm, once the nimitta is polished and sustained, the four jhanas and the four immaterial attainments may appear as the twelfth step.
Other scholars, however, teach that the four jhanas may be attained in step twelve, but the immaterial attainments are experienced in steps thirteen through sixteen, i.e., the last four steps of the Tranquil Wisdom meditation which we encounter in Step Seven.
Depending upon how well we keep the precepts and how well the nimitta is polished in step ten and made stable in step eleven, we may make it to the first jhana only, to the second jhana only, and so on. No jhana can be skipped, i.e., we cannot experience the third jhana unless we have experienced the first two, and so on.
Just like the joy of the fifth step, the explosion of joy associated with the first jhana usually causes the meditation to end. It takes practice to let the first jhana mature into the second jhana, and so on.
The jhanas transport us from the third world of sense desire to the second world of form, also known as the fine-material world.
In the Theravada teachings, there are sixteen dharma realms in the fine-material world.
The beings of the fine material plane of existence are no longer subject to sense desire and they have left the lower six realms, the desire or sense-sphere realm, never to fall back.
As the name of this collection of realms implies, however, the beings are free of the gross material world but they still have some connection to the material world and have not achieved anuttara samyak sambodhi, total liberation.
Of the sixteen planes of existence, three are associated with the first jhana, three are associated with the second jhana, three are associated with the third jhana, two are associated with the fourth jhana, and the final five are associated with The Pure Land, referred to in the Pali Canon as The Pure Abodes.
Development of the first jhana to an inferior degree leads to rebirth among:
Brahma’s Assembly (20);
Middling development of the first jhana leads to rebirth among:
The Ministers of Brahma (19); and
Superior development of the first jhana leads to rebirth among:
The Maha Brahmas (18).
Thus there are three planes of existence or dharma realms associated with the first jhana.
How can we know if we have attained the first jhana? The Pali Canon mentions four features of the first jhana, as follows:
1. Vittaka which is translated as “thinking”;
2. Vicara which is translated as “examining”;
3. Piti which is translated as “joy, bliss or rapture”; and
4. Sukha which is translated as “happiness.”
Venerable Ajahn Brahm translates vittaka and vicara as subverbal, i.e., non-thinking reactions of the mind.
He teaches that vittaka is the mind’s tendency to flow into a blissful state and vicara is the mind’s tendency to grasp at that blissful state. That grasping weakens the bliss but vittaka lets go of the grasping and the bliss strengthens again.
So if we feel blissful but that bliss seems to “wobble,” as Ajahn Brahm says, that’s the first jhana.
In the same inferior-middling-superior development way, development of the second jhana leads to rebirth among:
The gods of Limited Radiance (17);
The gods of Immeasurable Radiance (16); and
The gods of Streaming Radiance (15).
How can we know if we have attained the second jhana? Well, the first jhana is exhilarating and it doesn’t last long. When the pounding bliss fades away, and only happiness remains, we have entered into the second jhana.
The second jhana is a more stable level of concentration whose primary features are serenity and solidity and it can last for hours; the first jhana is unlikely to last anywhere near that long.
Inferior, middling and superior development of the third jhana leads to rebirth among:
The gods of Limited Glory (14);
The gods of Immeasurable Glory (13); and
The gods of Refulgent Glory (12).
Superior development of the fourth jhana leads to rebirth among:
The gods of Great Fruit (11).
However, if the fourth jhana is developed with a desire for insentient existence (which seems to be a contradiction in terms), then it leads to rebirth among:
The Non-percipient gods (10) “for whom consciousness is temporarily suspended” to quote Bhikkhu Bodhi, author of A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma.
Bhikku Bodhi has also provided the modern translations of the Anguttara Nikaya (numerical discourses of the Budddha, the Mahjjima Nikaya (the middle-length discourses of the Buddha, the Samyutta Nikaya (the connected discourses of the Buddha), and In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of the Pali Canon.
As mentioned earlier, the six lower realms of the Mahayana dharma realms are the eleven lower realms in the Theravada understandng because the dharma realms of the gods of the sense sphere is one realm in Mahayana and six realms in Theravada. Thus, in Theravada, dharma realms 31-21 are the realms of sense desire and the lowest of the form realms (Brahma’s Assembly) is thus number 20 of 31.
Bhikkhu Bodhi, author of The Noble Eightfold Path, calls the sixteen realms (20-5) of the fine-material realm the “objective counterparts” of the four jhanas.
But the formless world, the immaterial world (dharma realms 4-1), lies beyond the world of form, and it cannot be experienced until we experience the immaterial attainments.
When I first read about these realms of consciousness, and the creative names by which they are known, my first reaction was to laugh. I thought the gods under the four great kings, the gods of the thirty three, and so on, were the products of someone’s over-active imagination.
I had the same feeling of comic relief when I first read about the levels of consciousness that belong not to the realm of desire but to the realm of form, enterable only through the jhanas.
Brahma’s Assembly, The Ministers of Brahma, the Maha Brahmas, the gods of limited radiance, immeasureable radiance, streaming radiance, limited glory, immeasureable glory, refulgent glory, of great fruit, the non-percipient gods, it was pretty corny.
I have no doubt that someone about 2500 years ago entered into very high levels of bliss and then wrote down his or her experiences.
As the bliss increased, that cultivator would report: I felt like I had entered into Brahma’s Assembly, but then it got even better and I met the Ministers of Brahma, higher still I met the Maha Brahmas. The bliss deepened and I met the gods of limited radiance and they took me to meet the gods of immeasurable radiance and they introduced me to the gods of streaming radiance and after that…
We learn early in our study of Buddhism that the Buddha talked often of the impermanence of things. He taught that those who build their inner happiness on external things are doomed to lose their happiness because nothing lasts forever.
I am sure that a person who enters into the first jhana today, 2500 years after the experience of one early Buddhist was recorded, is unlikely to enter into Brahma’s Assembly, followed by meeting the Ministers of Brahma, and so on.
Brahma’s Assembly and all the other levels of awareness have morphed into something else by now.
A modern person who is ardent and resolute in the cultivation of Zen practices on an unrelenting, daily basis, will certainly enter into blissful states of mind and that bliss will increase in intensity with practice, but it would be nonsensical to believe that these states of bliss with these names will be encountered and that they will appear in the order as recorded by our ancient practitioner.
It’s fun to memorize these states of awareness (I can’t help it) but accepting them as factual, down to their names, would be ludicrous. They were one person’s experience thousands of years ago and we will have our own.
Note that in the Theravada dharma realm countdown, the non-percipient gods reside ten levels of awareness from the top.
Levels 9, 8, 7, 6, and 5 are the highest levels of the realm of form and these levels are the pure abodes of which the Buddha spoke, the realm of the non-returners. They are, from bottom to top:
The Aviha (9);
The Atappa (8);
The Sudassa (7);
The Sudassi (6); and
The Akanittha (5).
The lifetime of the beings in these Pure Abodes increases “significantly in each higher plane.”
We can find in the Pali Canon how far these abodes are from the earth and the specific lifetimes of the inhabitants of each.
No kidding: Some people have actually done the math. They can tell you which Pure Abode is located near the orbit of Jupiter, for example. I hope their humor is intentional.
And if we take such facts literally, we’re nuts. The point is that there are levels of awareness beyond that of the fourth jhana but below the awareness of the immaterial world that lies beyond the world of form.
If the fourth jhana takes our awareness to levels of bliss that some creative ancient cultivator dubbed the gods of great fruit and the non-percipient gods, what meditation practice takes us to the five Pure Abodes, dharma realms 9-5 in the Theravada listing of dharma realms?
Answer: None. The Pure Abodes are like the Christian heaven; we have to die to get there. The five Pure Abodes are where non-returners are reborn. They cannot possibly be re-born into the first world of sense desire but they have not yet attained Nirvana.
As mentioned earlier, keeping all ten precepts to perfection ensures against re-birth in the lower six dharma realms but doesn’t guarantee re-birth in The Pure Land. Keeping all ten precepts will result in a re-birth in the world of form, i.e., the fine-material world, but not necessarily at the high end of that world.
Those who make it the Pure Abodes, where there are no impediments to practice, are guaranteed success. Cultivation continues unabated until all dharma realms are left behind in the Theravada view and Nirvana is attained, or the first dharma realm of Nirvana is attained in the Mahayana reckoning of dharma realms.
But we humans can practice Buddha Name Recitation which the Pure Land teachers say will assure us rebirth in the Pure Land. This is technically not a meditation practice but it probably develops mindfulness and it probably can take a practitioner to the jhanas.
We could make Buddha Name Recitation a practice of the Mahayana sixth dharma realm, the human dharma realm, but since we introduced the precepts at the sixth dharma realm, we have saved Buddha Name Recitation for the Mahayana fifth dharma realm, the realm just above the human dharma realm and the last stop before leaving the third world of desire and entering the second world of form.
Since the fifth dharma realm is the highest of the six lower realms, it makes sense to make Buddha Name Recitation a practice of the unenlightened gods.
Zen and the Pure Land are separate schools in Japan, with Pure Land practitioners greatly outnumbering Zen practitioners, but in China the two schools have merged. Most Ch’an (Zen) practice centers teach Buddha Name Recitation as a Ch’an (Zen) practice.
The Mahayana school does not teach Tranquil Wisdom meditation and thus does not teach cultivation of the jhanas. It has a different approach to the Pure Abodes, referred to in Mahayana texts as the Pure Land.