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The Form and Formless Spheres
Dr. Peter Della Santina

In Chapter 33 I introduced several schemes for classifying consciousness that may be difficult to grasp, particularly for newcomers to Abhidharmic studies. Hence there are two additional points I would like to make as we proceed with our discussion.

First, to acquire understanding, one needs to cultivate (1) study, (2) consideration, and (3) meditation. It is not enough just to hear or read about the classifications of consciousness: one needs to consider exactly how they function, exactly what their meaning is. From my own experience, these schemes of classification will not begin to make sense until one spends some time running them back and forth in one's mind. Finally, after study and consideration, one can use them in one's meditation.

Second, to understand these classifications, it helps to consider a more concrete and accessible model. Suppose you want to know how many people are likely to watch daytime television in Singapore. You might classify the population into employed and unemployed; again, you might divide the unemployed group into English-speaking and Chinese-speaking, so you know how many are likely to watch English programs compared to Chinese ones. You might divide the population into male and female, or into school-going and non-school-going, and the school-going group into those who attend English schools and those who attend Chinese schools. Given a certain group of factors--in this case, the individual people who make up a population--there are many ways to classify them depending on what you want to find out.

It is the same way with the Abhidharmic classification of consciousness: we have a set of types of consciousness, and we classify them in different ways according to what we want to find out. If we remember this general rule about why and how we classify factors of consciousness, and then run the schemes back and forth in our minds, they will begin to make more sense.

In this chapter we will look at the form-sphere consciousness (rupavachara) and the formless-sphere consciousness (arupavachara; see Chapter 33). Here we are primarily concerned with the analysis of types of consciousness that arise from meditation, concentration, or absorption (jhana). As in the genesis of the Abhidharma itself, Sariputta played a vital role in the beginnings of Abhidharmic analysis of consciousness. In the Anupada Sutta it is mentioned that, after achieving the various states of meditation, Sariputta applied an Abhidharmic type of analysis by enumerating, classifying, and identifying the types of consciousness he had experienced.

Much emphasis was placed on analysis even in the early period of Buddhist history, because the experience of extraordinary states of meditation can be easily misinterpreted. In non-Buddhist traditions, such states are consistently misinterpreted as evidence of a transcendental, supranatural being or of an eternal soul.

By pointing out that states of meditation, like experience in general, are characterized by impermanence, transience, and insubstantiality, analysis wards off the three defilements of: (a) craving or attachment to the supernatural and extraordinary states of consciousness achieved through meditation; (b) false views, that is, the misinterpretation of these states of meditation as evidence of the existence of a transcendental being or eternal soul; and (c) conceit, which arises from the notion that one has achieved extraordinary states of meditation.

The cultivation of states of meditation and the attainment of the absorptions is a very important part of Buddhist practice because it is the aim of mental development, which is one of the three major divisions of the Buddhist path (i.e., morality, mental development, and wisdom). To achieve these states of meditation, one needs to create the foundation of morality and withdraw to some extent from involvement in worldly activities. Having achieved these preliminary conditions, one then proceeds to cultivate the states of meditation through various methods.

Briefly, one proceeds by means of some forty traditional objects of meditation, which include ten supports (kasina). These objects are coordinated to the temperament of the meditator. In other words, particular objects of meditation are prescribed for certain kinds of temperament. In general, one begins with an external support, gradually that external support is internalized and conceptualized, and finally that support is discarded and one enters the state of meditation proper.

Five factors of absorption (jhananga) are crucial to developing the states of meditation that result in the type of consciousness belonging to the form and formless spheres: (i) initial application (vitakka), (ii) sustained application (vichara), (iii) interest, enthusiasm, or rapture (piti), (iv) happiness or bliss (sukha), and (v) one-pointedness (ekaggata). These five factors are also evident in most types of consciousness, including the sense-sphere consciousness and even the consciousness of some of the more developed animals.Take, for instance, one-pointedness. Every conscious moment participates in one-pointedness to some degree. This one-pointedness enables us to focus on a particular object in our conscious experience. If it were not for one-pointedness, we would not be able to pick out an object of consciousness from the stream of objects of consciousness.

The five factors of absorption play a particular role in the development of meditative consciousness in that they raise our consciousness from the sense sphere to the form sphere, and thence to the formless sphere, through intensification. Intensification implies the enhancement and development of the power of particular functions of consciousness. Intensification of the first two factors, initial application and sustained application, leads to the development of the intellect, which can then serve to develop insight. Similarly, intensification of the fifth factor, one-pointedness, leads to the development of fully concentrated or absorbed consciousness. Intensification of all five factors leads progressively to the attainment of supernormal powers.

The five factors also help elevate one's consciousness from the sense sphere to the form and formless spheres by removing the five hindrances (nivarana): initial application corrects sloth and torpor; sustained application corrects doubt; enthusiasm corrects ill-will; happiness corrects restlessness and worry; and one-pointedness corrects sensual desire.

Let us look more closely at the five factors of absorption to see how they produce concentrated consciousness. To do this, we need to look in greater detail at their meaning. In the context of developing meditative consciousness, initial application (vitakka) is better termed 'applied thought,' since it means 'hitting upon,' 'striking,' or 'mounting.' Vitakka mounts the mind, placing it on the object of meditation; vichara (sustained application) then keeps the mind firmly on that object, maintaining the placement of the mind. The third factor of absorption--enthusiasm, interest, or rapture (piti)--motivates one to pursue the activity of meditation diligently.

It may be helpful to contrast interest (piti) and happiness (sukha) to understand the relationship between the two. Interest and happiness belong to two different classes of experience: interest to the volitional class (sankhara), and happiness to the feeling class (vedana). On the one hand, interest is active anticipation and enthusiasm; on the other hand, happiness is a feeling of contentment or bliss. The commentaries have given the following example to illustrate the relation between the terms. Suppose a man in a desert is told that there is a pond of fresh water at the edge of a village nearby. Upon hearing the news, he experiences a keen sense of interest (piti) and is motivated and encouraged by the information. But when he actually reaches the pond and quenches his thirst, he experiences happiness (sukha). Thus it is interest or enthusiasm that encourages us to proceed toward concentrated consciousness, whereas happiness or bliss is the actual experience of mental happiness that results from concentrated consciousness.

One-pointedness (ekaggata) is collection, non-distraction of the mind, focusing the mind without wavering on the object of meditation. It is like the flame of a lamp which remains steadfast in a room free of drafts.When all five factors of absorption are present, we have the first form-sphere consciousness, or absorption. As factors of absorption are eliminated one by one, we progress step by step to the fifth form-sphere consciousness. In other words, when we eliminate initial application, we have the second form-sphere absorption; when sustained application is removed, we have the third form-sphere absorption; when interest is removed, we have the fourth form-sphere absorption; and when happiness is removed, we have the fifth form-sphere absorption.

These five types of consciousness are karmically active, wholesome types of consciousness. In addition, there are five reactive, resultant and five inactive or functional types of consciousness. The first five are karmically active and are present in this life. The second five are the result of the first five; in other words, cultivation of form-sphere absorption results in rebirth in the form sphere. The third five are the five form-sphere absorptions as practiced by the liberated ones (Arhats), who have broken the bonds of action and reaction; hence the five form-sphere absorptions are regarded as inactive when practiced by them. Thus there are fifteen types of form-sphere consciousness: five wholesome-active, five resultant, and five inactive. When one has attained the fifth form-sphere consciousness, one experiences dissatisfaction with the limited nature of the form-sphere absorptions. One then progresses to formless-sphere meditation, again by means of an object of meditation, commonly one of the ten supports (kasina). One achieves this transition by extending the support until it covers the infinity of space, then discarding the support and meditating on the infinity of space, thereby achieving the first of the formless-sphere absorptions.

When this is achieved, one progresses to the second formless-sphere absorption, which dwells on the infinity of consciousness. At this stage, rather than focusing on the object of the meditating consciousness (i.e., the infinity of space), one focuses on the subject of the meditative consciousness (i.e., the consciousness that pervades infinite space, or infinite consciousness).

The third formless-sphere absorption dwells on the present nonexistence of the preceding infinite consciousness that pervaded infinity. In other words, the third formless-sphere absorption dwells on nothing at all, nothingness, or voidness.

Finally, the fourth formless-sphere absorption dwells on the realm of neither perception nor non-perception, a condition where consciousness is so subtle that it cannot be described as existent or nonexistent.

As with the form-sphere absorptions, there are three sets of formless-sphere consciousness (but with four instead of five types each). Four formless-sphere types of consciousness belong to the wholesome-active category; four belong to the resultant-reactive category, that is, rebirth in the formless sphere; and four belong to the inactive or functional category, the formless-sphere absorptions as practiced by the Arhats. In sum, there twelve types of formless-sphere consciousness: four wholesome-active, four resultant, and four inactive.

If we look at the progression in the formless-sphere absorptions, we see a gradual unification and rarefaction of consciousness--an absorption in the infinity of the object (space), then an absorption in the infinity of the subject (consciousness), followed by an absorption in nothingness, and, finally, an absorption in neither perception nor non-perception. You will remember that, when we talked about consciousness and its object as the fundamental, germinal structure of experience, we had in the sense-sphere consciousness the most fragmented type of experience, where consciousness and its object are broken down into many factors. As we progress through the form and formless spheres, gradually we have a unification of the subject and a unification of the object, so that when we arrive at the fourth formless-sphere absorption, we have reached the summit of mundane experience.

It is interesting that the form-sphere and formless-sphere absorptions were known to yogis before the time of the Buddha and were practiced by the Buddha's contemporaries. We have reason to believe that the two teachers with whom Gotama studied before his enlightenment were practitioners of these meditations. The formless-sphere absorptions were the highest level of spiritual development to which man could aspire before the Buddha, on the night of his enlightenment, demonstrated that absorption has to be combined with wisdom to become truly supramundane.

This is why it is said that, although one can achieve the highest development possible in meditation and be reborn at the pinnacle of the formless sphere, when the power of that meditative absorption--which is, after all, impermanent--wanes, one will be reborn in a lower sphere. For this reason, one must go beyond even these very rarefied and highly developed levels of meditative consciousness. One has to couple the concentrated and unified consciousness of the absorptions with wisdom; only then can one progress beyond the mundane to the supramundane types of consciousness.


[Taken from Peter Della Santina., The Tree of Enlightenment. (Taiwan: The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 1997), pp. 298-305].


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


Updated: 3-5-2000

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