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A Swift Pair of Messengers

Bhikkhu Sujato

 Chapter 6


A monk who develops and makes much of the four jhanas slopes, flows, and inclines towards Nibbana.’[1]

Why is this so? The Buddha often praised the jhanas as ‘blissful abidings here and now’. Does this imply that jhanas are just escapism, a refined form of solitary vice? Why are jhanas blissful?



‘There are these five cords of sensual pleasures. What five? Visible forms cognizable by the eye ... sounds cognizable by the ear ... smells cognizable by the nose ... tastes cognizable by the tongue ... tangibles cognizable by the body that are wished for, desired, alluring, likeable, connected with sensual pleasure, and provocative of lust.’[2]

‘Suppose, Aggivessana, there were a high mountain not far from a village or town, and two friends would leave the village or town and approach the mountain hand in hand. Having reached it, one friend would remain below at the foot of the mountain while the other would climb to the top. Then the friend who remained below at the foot of the mountain would say to the friend who stood on the top: “Well, friend, what do you see, standing on top of the mountain?” And the other replied: “I see lovely parks, groves, meadows, and ponds.” Then the first friend would say: “It’s impossible, friend, it cannot happen that while standing on top of the mountain you should see lovely parks, groves, meadows, and ponds.”

‘Then the other friend would come down to the foot of the mountain, take his friend by the arm, and make him climb to the top of the mountain. After giving him a few moments to catch his breath, he would ask: “Well, friend, standing on top of the mountain, what do you see?” And he would reply: “Standing on top of the mountain, friend, I see lovely parks, groves, meadows, and ponds.” Then the other would say: “Friend, just a little earlier we heard you say: ‘It is impossible, friend, it cannot happen that while standing on top of the mountain you should see lovely parks, groves, meadows, and ponds.’ But now we heard you say [just the opposite].” Then the first friend would reply: “Because I was obstructed by this high mountain, friend, I did not see what was there to be seen.”

‘So too, Aggivessana, Prince Jayasena is obstructed, hindered, blocked, and enveloped by a still greater mass than this ‑ the mass of ignorance. Thus it is impossible that Prince Jayasena, living in the midst of sensual pleasures, enjoying sensual pleasures, being devoured by thoughts of sensual pleasures, being consumed by the fever of sensual pleasures, bent on the search for sensual pleasures, could know, see, or witness that which must be known through renunciation, seen through renunciation, attained through renunciation, witnessed through renunciation.’[3]

‘Householder, suppose a dog, overcome by hunger and weakness, was hanging around a butcher's shop. Then the butcher would cut out a skeleton of meatless bones smeared with blood and toss it to the dog. What do you think, householder? Would that dog assuage its hunger and weakness by gnawing meatless bones?’

‘No, Bhante, that dog would just reap weariness and disappointment….’

‘Suppose a bird grabbed a piece of meat and flew away, and then vultures, crows, and hawks flew up and pecked and clawed it. If that bird does not quickly let go of that piece of meat, wouldn’t it incur death or deadly suffering because of that?’

‘Yes, Bhante.’

‘Suppose there was a charcoal pit deeper than a man's height and full of glowing coals... Then along came a man who wanted a happy life, and recoiled from pain and death. But two strong men seized him by the arms and dragged him towards that charcoal pit. Wouldn't that man struggle desperately?’

‘Yes, Bhante.’

‘So too, householder, a noble disciple considers thus: “Sensual pleasures have been compared with a skeleton ... with a piece of meat ... with a charcoal pit by the Blessed One ‑ they provide much suffering and much despair, and the danger in them is great....” ’[4]

‘Suppose, Magandiya, there was a leper with sores and blisters on his limbs, being devoured by worms, scratching the scabs off the openings of his wounds with his nails, cauterizing his body over a burning charcoal pit. The more he scratches his nails and cauterizes his body, the fouler, more evil-smelling, and more infected the openings of his wounds would become; and yet he would derive a certain amount of satisfaction and enjoyment from scratching the openings of his wounds. So too, Magandiya, beings who are not free from lust for sensual pleasures, who devoured by craving and burning with fever, still indulge in sensual pleasures ‑ the more they indulge, the more their craving and fever increases; and yet they derive a certain amount of satisfaction and enjoyment from the five cords of sensual pleasure....

‘I have never seen or heard of a king or a king’s minister in the past, future, or present, enjoying themselves with the five cords of sensual pleasure, who without abandoning craving and fever for sensual pleasures, was able to abide with mind... at peace within himself.

‘On the contrary, Magandiya, those contemplatives and brahmans in the past, future, or present, who abide with a mind at peace within themselves, all do so having understood in accordance with reality the origin, ending, gratification, danger, and escape from sensual pleasures, and having abandoned craving and fever for sensual pleasures.’[5]

‘Where sensual pleasures end and those who have thoroughly ended sensual pleasures abide, certainly those venerable ones are wishless and quenched, crossed over and gone beyond with respect to that factor, I say. Where do sensual pleasures end and those who have thoroughly ended sensual pleasures abide? Whoever should say: “I do not know or see that” should be told: “Here, friend, a monk, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unbeneficial qualities, enters and abides in the first jhana... Here sensual pleasures end and those who have thoroughly ended sensual pleasures abide.” Certainly, monks, the guileless and un-deceitful person would exclaim “Sadhu!” and rejoice and admire what was said, revering and honoring the speaker with palms joined in homage.’[6]

Sensual desire is not restricted to sexual desire, or desire for food, etc. These are only the coarse manifestations of a hunger for stimulation which constantly obsesses the minds of beings. Any interest or concern whatsoever connected with experiencing pleasure, relief, or comfort through the eye, ear, nose, tongue, or body, or any thoughts, memories, or expectations of such experience fall within the range of this prime hindrance. This is the defining characteristic of beings in the ‘sensual world’ and the chief reason for taking rebirth in this realm. Having taken rebirth here, life is for the most part dedicated to maximizing the experience of sensual pleasure. Hardly a few seconds ever go by during the course of an entire life truly free from free from harassment by concern for sensual pleasure. Even the overwhelming majority of religious practitioners ‑ and here Buddhists are no exception ‑ are motivated largely by sensual desire, whether it be the desire to experience refined sensual objects in a heavenly realm, or the desire to enjoy one’s relationships and material comforts with mind at peace.

The pleasure of sensuality has these properties. It is narrow, occurring in only a restricted zone of the totality of awareness, thus forcing a constriction of consciousness. It is evanescent, necessitating a constant toil to seek out new pleasures. It is stimulating, agitating the mind so that it cannot experience the pleasure fully, but keeps restlessly skipping about, thus concealing the inadequacy of the gratification provided by the pleasure. It is crude, coarsening the mind and blocking awareness of subtle realities. It is always interwoven with painful feeling, pressuring the mind to reject or deny part of experience. It is selfish, obstructing relationships with others based on genuine compassion and altruism. And because of all these things, it promotes the growth of unwholesome thoughts and intentions, leading to suffering in future lives and obstructing the path to Nibbana.

The bliss of the peaceful mind shares none of these faults. It permeates the whole field of awareness, so that the mind is spacious and relaxed. Though of course impermanent, it is far more stable and enduring than sensual happiness. It is peaceful, soothing the fevered mind, drawing the mind into the stillness of deep, sustained contemplation. It is of surpassing subtlety, the limits of feeling, pointing the way to the transcendence of feeling. It is pure bliss without any admixture of pain, fostering a truly holistic awareness. It removes any motivation for relationships based on selfish desires; seeing the tenderness of one’s own heart, one would shrink away from any act that would harm the heart of another. And because of all these things, it is exclusively associated with wholesome thoughts and intentions, leading to bliss not only in this life, but also to unimaginable ages of bliss in the future, and constituting the incontrovertible high road to the ultimate bliss of Nibbana.

‘Why am I afraid of that bliss which has nothing to do with sensual pleasures and unbeneficial qualities? It occurred to me: “I am not afraid of that bliss, since it has nothing to do with sensual pleasures and unbeneficial qualities.” ’[7]



According to fundamental principles of Buddhist philosophy, it is the mind that creates the world. The mind, fuelled with craving and attachments, cooks up the five senses to feed, distract, and entertain it, to avoid at any cost the ghastly possibility of having to confront the grisly reality behind its cozy complacency. By assailing the mind with an overload of input, the five hindrances, hand in hand with the five senses, confuse and sully the ability to clearly know.

‘Ignorance has a nutriment, I say. What is the nutriment of ignorance?

‘ “The five hindrances” should be the reply.’[8]

The importance of this statement can scarcely be overstated. It formulates in negative terms the statement that one in samadhi knows and sees according to reality the four noble truths. The practice of jhana, by cutting off the five hindrances, starves ignorance of its food. But how exactly does samadhi accomplish this?

One of the key factors in meditation is perception (sanna). Perception is a relatively shallow mode of knowing which recognizes the surface features of phenomena, interpreting them in terms of past experience. It marks off one section of sense data so that it can be treated as a unit. For example, it is perception that generalizes and summarizes the data in a visual image, recognizing that ‘This is blue, this is yellow, this is red.’ It filters, simplifies, and abstracts the sheer bewildering quantity of sense data, processing it in terms of manageable information, symbols, and labels. Perception forms the basis of concepts. While perception recognizes common features of phenomena, concepts combine a group or class of features into a mental image or idea. In order to construct something as ephemeral as a concept, the mind must be actively diverted from the clamor of sense experience and applied inwards. The formation of a concept can be analyzed in two stages. Firstly, there is the initial conception of a verbal idea, a thought (vitakka). Secondly, a sustained series of these thoughts is linked up to form a coherent consideration (vicara). At this stage, this thinking and considering is still preoccupied with perceptions of sense experience; but the mind is able for the first time to be aware of a mental object distinct from that experience, and hence by reflection to infer the existence of a ‘mind’ as experiencer. This development, though crucial for both psychology and philosophy, introduces a subtle distortion in experience. By representing the world as more coherent and meaningful than it really is, it invites an insidious obsession with the fantasy realm of concepts, the fairy castles of the imagination, divorced from the uncertainties of reality.

‘Dependent on the eye and visible forms arises eye-consciousness. The coming together of the three is contact. Due to contact there is feeling. What one feels, one perceives. What one perceives, one thinks about. What one thinks about, one proliferates about. What one proliferates about is the source from which ideas derived from the proliferation of perceptions beset a person regarding past, future, and present visible forms cognizable by the eye [and so on].’[9]

The first steps of this passage form the basic exposition of the workings of conscious processes as analyzed in dependant origination. They constitute the ‘given’, the raw materials common to all sentient beings. With feeling, though, a new syntactical structure appears, signifying a change in mood. The static nouns are replaced by verbs ‑ the momentum is picking up. The mind is adding to experience, and here perception plays a key role, under the influence of the four ‘perversions of perception’ ‑ seeing permanence in what is impermanent, happiness in what is suffering, self in what is not-self, and beauty in what is ugly.'[10] By noticing shared characteristics, with each phenomenon perception suggests an association with further phenomena. These associations become verbalized internally as mental images called ‘thinking’. The following verse links ‘proliferation’ closely with ‘conceit’, the idea of a ‘self’.

‘One should thoroughly dig up the root
Of ideas born of the compulsion to proliferate
[That is, the notion:] “I am the thinker.” ’[11]

‘Proliferation seems to be a term for the way the undisciplined mind, by identifying with and delighting in this process of thinking, erupts in a profusion of trivial and repetitious inner commentaries. So at this point the passage moves on from analysis purely in terms of mental factors the ‘person’ is introduced. Proliferation has given birth to the full-blown concept of a ‘thinker’ who is being overwhelmed by the conceptual process by which they were born, which is now spinning out of control. Significantly, at the same point time is introduced. We have seen above the connection between time, concepts, and the idea of an enduring self. The ‘ideas’ spoken of in the passage lie close in meaning to ‘concepts’; but the literal meaning ‘reckonings, classifications’ suggests rather more specifically the mind’s calculating manipulation of the data of experience, like an inner spin doctor reaffirming the self and its place in the world. Given the integral significance here ascribed to the process of conceptual proliferation in the generation of suffering, the benefits of a meditation which can quell thought are not restricted to short term psychological ease. We have met such a meditation before.

‘Mindfulness of breathing should be developed to cut off thinking.[12]

It was seen above how perception simplifies experience into meaningful units. This essential function is undermined when proliferative thinking re-multiplies experience, so that just one word can trigger minutes or hours of discursive inner monologue. The special quality of mindfulness of breathing, shared to some degree with other meditation subjects, is to cut this process before it sprouts by staying with singleness of perception. When disciplined through meditation, the simplifying function of perception radically reduces the quantity of data in experience, allowing the development of a more refined and sensitive awareness.

What exactly is the ‘breath’? There is a certain experience at the beginning of each breath, a different experience in the middle, and yet another at the end. These experiences are simply awareness of the air element; but it is perception that marks them off as the ‘breath’. Only the physical impact of the air on the nerve endings is registered by body consciousness. That body consciousness ‘reports’ to mind consciousness, which performs the more sophisticated cognitive tasks such as recognition, interpretation, and so on. The function of vitakka to initiate thoughts and vicara to sustain chains of thoughts is transformed by applying them not to perceptions of verbal constructs but to perceptions of the breath, actively directing the mind away from the diversity of sense experience onto the breath. Doing so over and over, the common features of the breaths become apparent. By combining the shared features of the breaths recognized by perception and by ignoring irrelevant data, the mind forms a stable and coherent concept or mental image of the breath. As contemplation deepens, the physical breath becomes very fine, so that its impact, originally overpowering, fades and the settling mind gains more appreciation of the subtle mind consciousness. Here, the meditator is going beyond the first four steps of mindfulness of breathing which fall within body contemplation. A numinous rapture arises; the mind floats up like a balloon relieved of its ballast as the heavy burden of the body is disappearing. The subtle reflection of the mind in the breath is now almost the sole object in awareness. This refined concept, because of ignoring fluctuations in detail, has an enduring quality which outlives the changing physical phenomena it is derived from, in just the same way than the concept of ‘self’ has an enduring quality which outlives the body.[13] It normally appears to the meditator as a brilliant light of awesome power, yet exquisite refinement. As the fluctuations in consciousness even out, change fades away. One need no longer rely on memories of past experiences to interpret the present moment. The contrast on which time depends is not evident, and past and future disappear in the seamless flow of the present: one-pointedness in time. The contents of experience become so rarified that signs and summaries are rendered superfluous. A deeper mode of knowing emerges.

‘Quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unbeneficial qualities, one enters and abides in the first jhana.... One's former perception of sensual pleasures ceases. On that occasion there is a subtle and true perception of rapture and bliss born of seclusion. Thus with training some perceptions arise and some perceptions cease.... Again, one enters and abides in the second jhana ... third jhana ... fourth jhana ... base of infinite space ... base of infinite consciousness ... base of nothingness.

‘One's former perception of the base of infinite consciousness ceases. On that occasion there is a subtle and true perception of the base of nothingness.... Thus with training, some perceptions arise and some perceptions cease. Potthapada, from when a monk gains his own [inner] perception, he then step by step gradually contacts the peak of perception. Standing on the peak of perception it occurs to him: “Volition is evil to me; non-volition is better. If I were to form volitions and acts of will, this perception of mine would cease, and another, coarser, perception would arise. What if I were to neither form volitions nor acts of will?”...Those perceptions cease and other, coarser, perceptions do not arise. He contacts cessation. Thus, Potthapada, there is the gradual attainment of the cessation of higher perceptions with clear comprehension.’[14]



If one is disinterested in these five senses and withdraws attention from them, how would they continue to exist? They would disappear, together with their associated feelings, perceptions, thoughts, memories, intentions, and consciousnesses. When they stop, there is the first experiential understanding of ‘cessation’. The path of practice is called a ‘gradual cessation’. For one who lacks grounding in this experience, the dawning realization of the frailty and emptiness of all one holds dear can precipitate a traumatic existential crisis.

‘Here, monk, some have such a view: “This is the self, this is the world. After death I will be permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and will remain just like eternity.” He hears the Tathagata or a disciple of the Tathagata teaching Dhamma for the destruction of all standpoints for views, resolutions, obsessions, insistings, and inherent compulsions, for the relinquishing of all belongings, for the evaporation of craving, for fading away, cessation, Nibbana. It occurs to him: “Good grief! I shall be annihilated! Good grief! I shall perish! Good grief! I shall not exist!” He sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, and becomes distraught. Thus there is anxiety about what is non-existent within.’[15]

Jhanas share, to a lesser degree, the bliss of cessation which is Nibbana. In fact, jhanas are called, with qualification, ‘deathless’, Nibbana here and now’, ‘Nibbana', even ‘final Nibbana’.[16] The gradual abiding in jhana, witnessing the successive stilling of activities, prepares the mind to accept that Nibbana is ultimate bliss, precisely because all feelings have ended.

Venerable Sariputta addressed the monks: ‘Nibbana is bliss, friends, Nibbana is bliss.’

When this was said, Venerable Udayin said to Venerable Sariputta:

‘But what is the bliss there, in that nothing is felt?’

‘Just that is the bliss there, in that nothing is felt.... The bliss and happiness that arise dependent on the five cords of sensual pleasure; this is called the bliss of sensual pleasure. Here, a monk, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unbeneficial qualities, enters and abides in the first jhana... If perception and attention connected with sensual pleasure assail one abiding thus, this is an affliction for him, just as if pain arises in a happy person. Affliction has been called suffering by the Blessed One. By this method it should be understood how Nibbana is bliss….’[17]

Once the mind has experienced jhana, it will deeply understand the suffering of sense-activity and will be reluctant to get involved, remaining free from defilements for a long time. It can then engage in contemplation of Dhamma without being diverted by distracting thoughts, sleepiness, or desire, and can pursue any theme of meditation as long as it wishes.

‘When the mind is released from these five taints [hindrances], it is soft, workable, radiant, not brittle, it has right samadhi for the evaporation of the poisons. One can incline the mind to witness with direct knowledge any principle which can be witnessed with direct knowledge, and become an eyewitness in every case, there being a suitable basis.’[18]

These direct knowledges have been met with above in the examination of satipatthana and the gradual training. Although not absolutely necessary, their frequent occurrence in the suttas indicates that they should not be dismissed lightly. They include such important psychic powers as the ability to recollect one’s past lives and to see how beings are reborn according to their actions. These confirm through personal experience the truth of action and rebirth, which constitutes non-transcendental right view. This will ripen into the transcendental right view of the four noble truths ‑ how the process of rebirth works and how to bring it to an end. These are distinct kinds of knowledge; but the clearer is the knowledge of the details of rebirth, the easier will be the understanding of the principles of rebirth. The practice of jhana will naturally lead to this kind of understanding by demonstrating how the mind can exist quite happily when relieved of the burden of the body. Perhaps this may explain the intriguing reports of near-death experiences ‑ being drawn down a tunnel of light, meeting heavenly beings, feeling great bliss ‑ which are so similar to experiences commonly met with on the threshold of jhana. To get into jhana, one has to die to the body.

It was also noted above how the ability of the mind to form concepts is the basis of both the idea of ‘self’ and the attainment of jhana. As the unseen seer, the ‘lord of the city in the center at the crossroads’, the mind is the prime resort of the ‘self’. Mind consciousness plays a role in the processing of all the other kinds of consciousness, and therefore can easily be mistaken for a permanent substratum of experience. Further, as it is within the mind that the idea of ‘self’ is born, when the mind is seeking for some aspect of experience to appropriate as ‘self’, it is automatically prone to turn back in on itself rather than seek outside. So we have seen that freedom from attachment to the mind is the exclusive province of the noble ones. For those who start practice with wrong views, then, the mind in jhana becomes the obvious locus for theories of the self. But one who starts practice with right view will instead use their jhana as a basis for insight into the nature of awareness.

Jhanas are at ‘the end of the world.[19] Five coarse kinds of consciousness have disappeared, leaving only the purified mind consciousness. Here, consciousness is directly accessible to profound contemplation. Not catching a glimpse of it here and there like a butterfly flitting in the twilight gloom of the forest, but gazing at it face to face for a long time, like a butterfly caught and pinned down under a brilliant light. Before, the ‘self’ could always shift its ground when challenged. But now it is like an army in retreat, besieged and surrounded in just one city. With nowhere to run, it cannot hold out long. Soon the victorious army of insight will scale the walls and storm the last stronghold of the self: consciousness itself. But why so many words?

‘There are these four ways of devotion to the pursuit of pleasure, Cunda, which conduce exclusively to repulsion, fading away, cessation, peace, direct knowledge, enlightenment, Nibbana. What four? Here, a monk ... enters and abides in the first jhana ... second jhana ... third jhana ... fourth jhana.

‘If wanderers from other religions should say: “The monks who are sons of the Sakyan abide devoted to these four ways of pursuing pleasure”, they should be told: “Yes!” since they speak rightly, without misrepresenting the truth.

‘If wanderers from other religions should ask: “How many fruits and benefits are there from devotion to these four ways of pursuing pleasure?” They should be told: “There are four fruits, four benefits. What four? Here, a monk ... becomes a stream-enterer ... a once-returner ... a non-returner ... arahant.”[20]

[1] S53.1

[2] M13.7 etc.

[3] M125.9

[4] M75.17-18

[5] M75.17-18

[6] A9.33

[7] M36.32

[8] A10.61

[9] M18.16. The subtle dynamics of this passage were explored by Bhikkhu Nanananda in his classic study Concept and Reality.

[10] A4.49

[11] Sn 916

[12] Ud 4.1, etc.

[13] This does not, however, imply that concepts are not classified as conditioned and impermanent, as some suggest. See S15.20.

[14] D9.10-17

[15] M22.20

[16] A9.48ff

[17] A9.34

[18] A5.23 cp. S46.33

[19] A9.38

[20] D29.24


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last updated: 06-09-2004