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Supramundane Consciousness
Dr. Peter Della Santina

In this chapter we conclude our review of the analysis of consciousness, which brings us to the end of the first book of the Abhidharma Pitaka, the Dhammasangani (Classification of Factors). Here I will talk about the last of the four objective classifications of consciousness outlined in Chapter 32, namely, the supramundane consciousness (alokiya chitta).

There are two ways of distinguishing the supramundane types of consciousness from the mundane types (the consciousness of the sense sphere, form sphere, and formless sphere). The first distinction is in terms of determination and direction. The mundane consciousness is determined, undirected, and subject to karma and conditions, whereas the supramundane consciousness is determining, directed toward a goal, and no longer subject to forces beyond its control. Supramundane consciousness is determining because of the predominance not of karma but of wisdom.

The second distinction is that the mundane types of consciousness have as their object conditioned phenomena, whereas the supramundane types have as their object the unconditioned--namely, nirvana. The Buddha spoke of nirvana as an unborn and uncreated state. Such a state is necessary in order that there be a way out of the conditioned world of suffering. In this sense the object of the supramundane type of consciousness is uncreated and unconditioned.

We can generally divide the supramundane types of consciousness into four active and four passive types of consciousness. Normally, types of consciousness can be active or passive, and the passive types can be reactive (resultant) or inactive (functional). However, there are no functional or inactive types of consciousness in this category because here the types of consciousness are determining, not determined. These eight basic types of supramundane consciousness, four active and four passive, each correspond to the path and the fruit of the four types of noble ones--the stream-winner (sotapanna), the once-returner (sakadagami), the non-returner (anagami), and the Arhat. Here I ought to point out another distinction between supramundane and mundane consciousness. In the mundane types of consciousness, active and resultant types of consciousness can be separated by relatively long periods of time: in other words, an active, conscious factor may not produce its resultant factor until much later in the present life or even until a future life. For example, in the case of the consciousness of the form and formless spheres, the resultant consciousness does not occur until a subsequent life. In the supramundane types of consciousness, however, the resultant (or fruit) consciousness follows the active (or path) consciousness immediately.

The eight types of supramundane consciousness can be expanded to forty by combining each of the eight with each of the five form-sphere absorptions. The four types of active supramundane consciousness (the path consciousness of the stream-winner and so forth) combine with the consciousness belonging to the first absorption and so forth, so that there are twenty types of active supramundane consciousness associated with the four types of noble persons and five form-sphere absorptions. Similarly, the four types of resultant supramundane consciousness (the fruit consciousness of the stream-winner and so forth) combine with the consciousness belonging to the first absorption and so forth, so that there are twenty types of resultant supramundane consciousness, and forty in all.

This occurs in the following way. Based on the first form-sphere absorption, the path and fruit consciousness of the stream-winner arise. Similarly, based on the second third, fourth, and fifth form-sphere absorptions, the path and the fruit consciousness of the once-returner, the non-returner, and the Arhat arise. The consciousness belonging to the supramundane consciousness is therefore developed based on the various absorptions.

Let us go on to define the four stages of enlightenment: stream-winner (sotapanna), once-returner (sakadagami), non-returner (anagami), and Arhat. The progress of a noble one through the four stages of enlightenment is marked by his or her ability to overcome certain fetters at each stage. There is a progressive elimination of the ten fetters (samyojana) that bind us to the conditioned universe until such time as we are able to achieve liberation.

Entry into the stream is marked by the elimination of three fetters. The first is the belief in the independent and permanent existence of an individual person (sakkaya ditthi)--namely, taking the mental and physical factors of the personality (form, feeling, volition, perception, and consciousness) to be the self. It is therefore not coincidental that we say that the mundane types of consciousness are conditioned by the aggregates, whereas the supramundane types of consciousness are undetermined by the aggregates. Overcoming the first fetter marks one's passage from the status of an ordinary worldling to the status of a noble person.

The second fetter overcome by the stream-winner is doubt (vichikichchha). This is primarily doubt about the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, but also about the rules of discipline and interdependent origination.

The third fetter is belief in rules and rituals (silabbataparamasa). This fetter has often been misunderstood, but refers to the practices of non-Buddhists who believe that adhering to codes of moral discipline and ascetic rituals alone can lead them to liberation.

When these three fetters are overcome, one enters the stream and will achieve liberation within no more than seven lifetimes. One will not be reborn in states of woe (the realms of the hell beings, hungry ghosts, and animals), and one is guaranteed implicit faith in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

Having achieved this first stage of enlightenment, the noble person goes on to weaken two additional fetters, sensual desire and ill-will, thus attaining the status of a once-returner. These fetters are particularly strong, which is why, even on this stage, they are only weakened, not removed. Sensual desire and ill-will may still occasionally arise, although not arise in the gross form familiar to worldly persons.

When these two fetters are finally eliminated, one attains the stage of the non-returner. At this third stage one is no longer reborn in the cycle of birth and death but only in the pure abodes reserved for non-returners and Arhats.

When the five remaining fetters are eliminated--attachment to the sphere of form (rupa raga), attachment to the formless sphere (arupa raga), conceit (mana), agitation (uddhachcha), and ignorance (avijja)--one achieves the pinnacle of the supramundane types of consciousness, the fruit consciousness of the Arhat.

These four stages may be divided into two groups: the first three, which are called stages of one in training, and the fourth, the stage of one who is no longer in training. For this reason, it may be useful to think of progress to Arhatship as a process of graduation, as in a program of academic studies. On each stage one overcomes certain barriers of ignorance and thereby graduates to a higher stage of training.

At this point, a qualitative change occurs, from an undirected and determined condition to a directed and determining one. How does one make nirvana the object of one's consciousness, thereby transforming a mundane consciousness whose object is conditioned into a supramundane consciousness whose object is unconditioned? How does one realize nirvana? This is done through developing insight, or wisdom (panna). To develop insight, we apply the two Abhidharmic methods of analysis and synthesis (see Chapter 32). We apply the analytical method in our examination of consciousness and its object--in other words, mind and matter. Through this analysis we arrive at the realization that what we previously took to be a homogeneous, unitary, and substantial phenomenon is in fact composed of individual elements, all of which are impermanent and in a constant state of flux. This is true of both mind and matter.

Similarly, we apply the synthetic method by considering the causes and the conditions of our personal existence. In relation to what factors do we exist as a psycho-physical entity? This examination reveals that the personality exists dependent on five factors--ignorance, craving, clinging, karma, and the material sustenance of life (namely, nourishment).

Insight in general is developed through applying the two Abhidharmic methods by dissecting internal and external, mental and physical phenomena and examining them in relation to their causes and conditions. These analytical and relational investigations reveal three interrelated, universal characteristics of existence: (1) impermanence, (2) suffering, and (3) not-self. Whatever is impermanence is suffering, because when we see the factors of experience disintegrate, their disintegration and their impermanence are an occasion for suffering. Moreover, whatever is impermanent and suffering cannot be the self, because self can neither be transient nor can it be painful.

Penetrating these three characteristics leads to renunciation, to freedom from the conditioned universe. Through understanding these three, one realizes that the three mundane spheres are like a banana tree--without essence. This realization leads to renunciation, to a disengagement from the conditioned sphere, and enables the consciousness to direct itself toward an unconditioned object, nirvana. Any one of the three characteristics can serve as a key to this new orientation. Any one of the three can be taken as an object of contemplation to develop one's insight. We can see this in the biographical accounts of the foremost disciples of the Buddha. Khema, for instance, achieved liberation through the contemplation of impermanence (see Chapter 22).

Once one has developed insight into one of the three universal characteristics, one can experience briefly a vision of nirvana. One's first acquaintance with nirvana may be likened to a flash of lightning that illuminates one's way in the darkness of night. The clarity of that flash remains for a long time impressed upon one's mind, and enables one to continue on one's way knowing that one is proceeding in the right direction. The first glimpse of nirvana achieved by the stream-winner serves as the orientation by which he directs his progress toward nirvana. One might almost liken this gradual development of insight to the acquisition of a skill. After first managing to bicycle a few yards without falling, it may be some time before one becomes an expert cyclist. But having successfully ridden those first few yards, one never forgets that experience and can confidently progress toward one's goal.

It is in this sense that contemplation of the three characteristics leads to the three doors of liberation: the door of signlessness, the door of wishlessness, and the door of emptiness. Contemplating the characteristic of impermanence leads to the door of signlessness; contemplating suffering leads to the door of wishlessness, or freedom from desire; and contemplating not-self leads to the door of emptiness. These three doors of liberation are the culmination of meditation on the three universal characteristics.

Thus one gradually progresses through the four stages of enlightenment and eventually achieves Arhatship, that stage of victory over the afflictions in which the unwholesome roots of greed, ill-will, and delusion are totally removed. Having uprooted the afflictions, the Arhat is free from the cycle of birth and death and is no longer reborn.

Despite some attempts to tarnish it with the charge of selfishness, the goal of Arhatship is a beneficial and compassionate mode of being. One need only look at the Buddha's instructions to his eminent Arhat disciples, and also at the careers of these disciples, to see that in the time of the Buddha Arhatship was not a passive or selfish state of being. Sariputta, Moggallana, and others were actively engaged in teaching both the laity and other members of the Buddhist Order. The Buddha himself exhorted his Arhat disciples to go forth for the benefit of the many. The goal of Arhatship is a glorious and worthy one that ought not be depreciated in any way by the fact that the Buddhist tradition also acknowledges the goal of the private or individual Buddha (Pachcheka Buddha) and the goal of Buddhahood.


[Taken from Peter Della Santina., The Tree of Enlightenment. (Taiwan: The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 1997), pp. 306-312].


Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for typing this article.


Updated: 3-5-2000

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