28. The Formless Realms

27. The Concentration States (Shamatha Jhanas)   |  29. Kasina Practice

The fifth through eighth jhanas (j5–j8) are called “the formless realms” or “formless jhanas”, or, for you Paliglots, the arupa jhanas. To distinguish the first four jhanas from the latter four, the first four are thus sometimes referred to as “the formed jhanas” (rupa jhanas). The formless realms can also be mistaken as much more significant than they really are. The trick is to come to a balanced understanding of what they are and what they aren’t, what they are useful for and what they do not accomplish. This is not always easy.

The Fifth Jhana, Boundless Space

To attain Boundless Space, the fifth jhana, we continue to cultivate the fourth jhana and begin to gently pay less attention to the objects or occurrences in the meditation space and more to space itself. How big is reality? Tuning in to the panoramic quality of attention itself when in the fourth jhana can be very helpful. This requires a careful balance of attending to what is going on while tuning out a substantial portion of what’s going on, and finding that this slippery balance takes practice. Cultivating the formless realms benefits from good practice conditions, such as a very quiet place to practice, good posture such that the body doesn’t hurt, and lack of other distractions and irritants. When the balance is right, forms then slip away like ghosts into thin air, and the mind turns to Boundless Space, the fifth jhana, as the object of concentration.

Initially we may notice the wide-open and boundaryless quality of the fourth jhana as a formed version of the fifth jhana, like a halfway point between the two that is starting to turn from the fourth jhana to the fifth-jhana way of perceiving space, and then we take that aspect as an object to the exclusion of the aspects of experience that are no longer obviously bounded. [I would label this state j4.j5, meaning that there is still form (j4) but that one is noticing its boundless aspect (.j5).] This is the two-step approach to attaining this jhana. For most practitioners, this is closer to the way it happens. Some can just detune from form and thus go more directly to the fifth jhana from the fourth. Both methods are just fine, and it is interesting to play with making this transition both ways.

The fifth jhana is often called “infinite space”, and the following one is often called “infinite consciousness”, but I prefer the word “boundless” because it is much closer to the actual experience of these stages. People imagine that they might simultaneously perceive the whole of space for billions of light years in all directions, which is obviously daunting to ponder, but what happens is that perceptual boundaries drop away and a very unitive and vast-feeling openness prevails. This open quality itself becomes the primary focus rather than what is unified in that openness. This aspect was already present in the fourth jhana, but now it predominates. The same is true of the aspects of the next formless realm.

The fifth jhana is not necessarily as perfectly clean as it sounds, depending on how solidly we are in this state, but it is still quite spectacular, at least until we get used to it. Once we get used to the fifth jhana, as with so many spectacular things, it eventually gets boring (j5.j3), and strangely enough when this genuinely happens on its own (rather than trying to simulate that boredom because you read it here), that is a sign of maturation. When this state is really cultivated, all or most images and sense of a body are gone, and almost all that is left is vastness. When this state is mastered, all bodily qualities and ordinary forms are totally gone, and the sensations of boundaryless vastness pervade.

There is still subtle thought operating and the illusion of a separate self, that is, duality, but the mind is extremely quiet and the duality very subtle. Alternatively, we could reasonably hold the view that the fifth jhana, being clearly something entirely different from the ordinary material world around us, is itself mentally created, and thus that the fifth jhana is purely thought-made, as though we have entered a totally different realm or plane. This would imply that the reverse of subtle thought is true, and that it is not that thought has become subtle, but a refined, stabilized, unusual way of perceiving thought has arisen and become so potent as to displace ordinary material experience. Regardless of how you choose to conceive of what is going on in the fifth jhana, the equanimity of the fourth jhana remains, as the formless realms use that state as their foundation. Sounds might still be noticeable depending on the depth of the state and how loud the sounds are. A strong practitioner will cut out all but loud sounds when in this jhana; this may happen in other jhanas as well. Note, if we attain this state while meditating with eyes open it may have a very different quality to it than with eyes closed.

“Formless realms with eyes open?” you might reasonably ask. Yes. Here we get into interesting territory when it comes to categorizing meditative phenomena. There is something I term j4.j5, meaning that we are really in the fourth jhana but have tuned strongly to its boundless elements while not detuning entirely from form, achieving some hybrid that sits on the boundary between the two. Many eyes-open experiences that have vast, seemingly unitive aspects are like this. However, a rare few with strong concentration can shift attention to spaces that have truly detuned from what is around them in ordinary visual terms and to the vastness of a wholly different space from the ordinary material one, yet with eyes open.

It is not uncommon for people to get into the fifth jhana and then retract back to the fourth when the body drops away, as they can feel ungrounded or as though they are not breathing. It is true that the breath can become very subtle or nearly imperceptible even in the fourth, but that gets much more extreme in Boundless Space, and until we get used to not being able to feel anything breathing, that can cause some initial instability. As we get more used to this state, we realize the body is going to breathe because that is what it does, and we can relax and go back to enjoying these jhanas. It is also worth knowing that there are some insight stages (specifically the third and fourth, described later) in which the breath sometimes does stop, and those stages can also have formless aspects. Whereas in those stages the breath does stop, in this jhana it does not stop but rather cannot be felt unless attention tunes back that way.

From the fifth jhana, meditators have a few options:

1) get stuck, which may be more likely if they are incorrectly practicing “non-dual formless practices” by fixating too much on phrases such as “space-like awareness”;

2) go on to the next formless realm (Boundless Consciousness); or

3) investigate this state so as to attain insight into it. For this option, special care and extreme precision must be brought to each instant of the many sensations making up the perception of space, silence, or equanimity so as to see each of these experiences arise and pass completely in each instant, not satisfy, and not be a self or the property of a self.

It may seem odd to think of the sensations of space arising and passing away each instant, but space is a conditioned aspect of relative reality, and is thus impermanent along with every other aspect of experiential reality. This can be an important attainment, as some of the last illusory holdouts against the realization of the truth of impermanence are things like the sense that somehow space must be stable and abiding, even though careful attention to it reveals that it too appears and disappears in each instant. The experience of space is a constantly changing set of sensate qualities created “on-the-fly”, so to speak, and we can learn to perceive this directly and clearly. [What I term vj5, meaning the fifth vipassana jhana.] Really, we can think of the sense doors as the textures of space, a transient space that is fluxing and flowing like everything else. 

There are few things quite as odd, profound, and possibly disconcerting as investigating the first three formless realms and perceiving them strobe in and out of existence, but this is powerful practice and a very valuable and high attainment. In certain phases of practice, I spent a lot of time doing this and got a lot out of it. Disentangling what sensations seem to be still a subtle knot of illusory subject-like-ness in Boundless Space can also be exceedingly profound, because this really strips things to the bone. What is left that seems to be an observer, however subtle, may become obvious at this point. Again, the meditator may leave this state and begin insight practices with the benefits of the residue of this state calming, opening, and stabilizing the mind for a short time after it ends.

The Sixth Jhana, Boundless Consciousness

If meditators wish to go further into the formless realms, they should continue to cultivate attention to Boundless Space and notice that they are conscious of it, and thus space is filled with consciousness. At some point the mind will abandon Boundless Space and shift to perceiving Boundless Consciousness, the sixth jhana. This can feel profoundly unitive, as consciousness seems to fill the whole universe, though really it just fills the field of experience. Again, equanimity prevails. This state has a sense of presence to it that Boundless Space doesn’t, a diffuse presence that seems to be part of space itself rather than centralized on this side. It is also a great staging ground for exploration of the “psychic powers”, as backtracking just slightly and adding to that conscious space, meaning bringing in just a bit of form, albeit potentially quite unusual form, can cause remarkable experiences.

Some may describe this jhana as space becoming “luminous”, with a pervasive bright presence or clear light, and here is where some can run into trouble. The issue is that plenty of traditions posit an “Awareness”, a “Ground of Being”, an “Intrinsic Luminosity”, a “Buddha Nature”, a “Tao”, and the like, with the capital letters implying some grand, final, definitive, stable, ultimate something that is in some way distinct from the rest of manifest sensate reality. There are plenty of spiritual teachings that mention things like “True Self” and the like, as if there is some permanent, stable, creative presence that knows all of this, that is all of this, that pervades all of this.

In fact, as people get to certain stages of practice, such notions can become extremely compelling and seem extremely true, truths that seem justified by our direct experience and attainments. There can even be skillful uses for these sorts of teachings, contrary to what some dogmatic Buddhist purists will say, as they can point to stages along a developmental continuum that are further than many will attain. Still, they are not as far as one can take insight practices, as one with strong insight will be able to deconstruct the sense that there is truly some Ground of Being that is stable or remains across moments. Boundless Consciousness is one of these compelling attainments that can fool people in this way. It is a trap—one of “the golden chains”.

The golden chains are seductive and profound effects of spiritual practice that can totally gum up the works, trapping people like pigs at Circe’s table, like addicts in a crack house, like misers in their vaults of money. They seem so enjoyable, so cosmic, so right, so fantastic, so amazing, so profound, so mind-blowing that it would seem crazy to question them or investigate them or be friends with anyone who would possibly be so gauche as to point out that there might be a problem, except that there very much is a problem. All of the jhanas can be golden chains, but some of the later ones, particularly the sixth jhana, are extremely sticky and tempting, like the biggest sticky bun ever, like a vast, silent bathtub full of honey.

They can very strongly convince people that there is a grand and final truth here, and that the grand and final truth is a Permanent Consciousness, an Eternal Watcher, an Awareness that is forever and that will be an eternal and unchanging refuge that protects us, that lets us off the hook, that we could disappear into and yet remain. Nothing of the kind can be found, but people caught up in experiences such as the sixth jhana sometimes go chasing them anyway. Take this as a strong warning: if you begin to suspect that there is really some independent Ground, some super-space that Knows, let sirens blare, warning lights flash, and the earth beneath you tremble with the thunderous roaring message and preferably a large pointing finger: “Go back! This is not the way!”, which should really be interpreted as: “Investigate! See impermanence in all things, see dissatisfactoriness, and not-you even in Boundless Consciousness!” This point will be repeated later with respect to various similar attainments that can also convince us that there is some stable je ne sais quoi, but the more times you hear it, the better.

All of that said, here is a perfectly valid counterpoint. There is something truly profound about this jhana, it is just that this profundity should not be taken to be more than it is. Seeing the intrinsic luminosity of anything is profound, and Boundless Consciousness gives us a broad and profound taste of this, writing it on the mind, and that is a good thing to have written on the mind. So, while heeding the warnings above, all of which are valid, also realize that spending time in the sixth jhana can do great things to the mind and the brain. It is showing you a valuable piece of the puzzle; just don’t take it for the whole puzzle.

There are a number of standard options from the sixth jhana. Meditators can:

1) get stuck, which again can happen fairly easily if they are mistaking non-dual formless practices for meditation on the concentration object of Boundless Consciousness or fixating on that jhana as being a “Ground of Being”, “True Self”, or “Awareness”, “Watcher”, etc., again due, for example, to misunderstanding the phrase “space-like awareness”;

2) go on to cultivate the next formless realm (“Nothingness”); or

3) investigate Boundless Consciousness and then begin the progress of insight.

For this last option, and just as we did with Boundless Space, extremely careful attention must be given to each moment of the appearance and disappearance of sensations making up the perceptions of consciousness, vastness, or equanimity. Each moment of perception of Boundless Consciousness is a fresh pattern of totally transient sensations. Great precision must be brought to observing that these sensations are impermanent, do not satisfy, and cannot be a self or its property. Because of how fundamentally disconcerting (unsatisfactory) it can be to have the three illusions shattered even at this level of expansiveness, clarity, and simplicity, this is not at all an easy practice to do but can be very powerful. [I label this vj6, the vipassana aspect of the sixth jhana.] It is much more likely that such insights into the true nature of the first three formless realms will arise spontaneously due to previous skillful insight practices.

So, you might wonder, what is observing Boundless Consciousness strobe in and out of reality? Now, there is a question, perhaps “The Question”, and there is nothing like doing the experiment in order to answer it.

The Seventh Jhana, Nothingness

If the meditator wishes to attain the next formless realm, the seventh jhana known as Nothingness, they can simply cultivate the jhana of Boundless Consciousness, and divest themselves of any form of fixation on or fascination with the vastness and luminosity of that state, that is, allow disenchantment (j6.j3) to naturally and organically arise in relation to Boundless Consciousness. Eventually, the mind will let go of the sixth jhana and shift to the jhana of Nothingness. This state can be described as like space with all the lights completely out, so that there is no vastness, and almost no sensations other than those of Nothingness. It is almost as though attention is out of phase with nearly all phenomena except those that imply Nothingness. They are still there somewhere, but they are not being attended to.

Note that there must be sensations that suggest Nothingness, however subtle. I have gotten into debates with people about how they think that there is nothing going on in Nothingness, and they are certain of this based on their experience but, given that there is an experience to base this on, by definition, it must be sensate, however exceedingly refined, subtle, abstract, or vague.

This jhana is different from the previous two formless realms in that the fifth and sixth are quite present to “reality” (as we think we’ve known it) in some way and panoramic in perspective, whereas Nothingness is more turned away from phenomena (as we think we know them) and perhaps more focused in some hard-to-explain way. There is, however, some very subtle thought and an extremely subtle sense of a separate self (if that process hasn’t been totally seen through already). It is very easy to be convinced that the seventh jhana is more than it is, due to the profundity of having the mind detuned in this unusually comprehensive way.

A parallel can be drawn between the first jhana and the fifth jhana of Boundless Space, the second jhana and sixth of Boundless Consciousness, the third jhana and seventh of Nothingness. Just as the third jhana is sort of the counterpoint to the second, like an inversion, or the other side of the coin, just so, Nothingness is like the other side of the coin of Boundless Consciousness. In Boundless Consciousness there is pervasive wide-open formless presence. In Nothingness, it is like the exact opposite. This pattern of mirroring but adding some additional twist is one to pay attention to, as it is a theme that will recur often, and remember this section when I mention fractals later.

As before, the seventh jhana can have different degrees of intensity to it. Even when we are not strongly in it, there is a sense of being out of phase with reality, like being dissociated. “Reality” is there, but you have tuned it out on your radio. Note well, this is very different from just being “checked out” in the colloquial sense, though there may be similar aspects, but this takes being “checked out” to a level of skillful refinement far beyond the ordinary.

While in theory equanimity prevails, well-developed Nothingness initially can be a bit scary for the same reasons that being in a dark room can be scary, at least until we get used to it. This can cause some instability in this state for those who are used to the width and presence of the first two formless realms. Now consciousness and space are basically gone. However, there is still awareness of this state, indicating that there can be awareness that is neither the consciousness nor the space highlighted in the first two formless realms. Basically, if there is any quality, including Nothingness, then that quality is the same as the awareness of itself. You could say that the qualities of experience, however they are, and specifically including those sensations that make up or imply Nothingness, are intrinsically present, manifest and “aware” right where they are, as they are, without any separate thing that knows. Each demonstrates the three characteristics, though if we are cultivating this as a shamatha jhana then that aspect should be ignored, if possible. Note well, I posit no stable, abiding, independently existing “ground of awareness” or any such thing by saying all of this, a point made for those who wish to attempt to locate some ultimacy either phenomenologically or ontologically in Nothingness. [Thanks to Tom Pepper, whose sharp mind and fearless pen helped me find places in this work that might not have been as clear as I wished them to be.]

Nothingness done well is truly formless, truly just as advertised (except for the ultra-subtle stuff that implies Nothingness, which is in fact something, just very subtle), truly a profound experience, and due to this profundity, even glimpses of very well-developed Nothingness can convince people it is something much higher (see “Fruition”, mentioned in the next chapter). It is one of the common mimics confused with more significant experiences. It is one of the standard contenders for what my teacher Bill called “unknowing experiences”, meaning experiences for which there is very little basis upon which to base an opinion about what they are.

From Nothingness, the meditator can:

1) get stuck, but this is not quite as likely as with the first two formless jhanas, as this state is quite refined but perhaps not as breathtaking or captivating, and therefore not as easy to get attached to as the first two in some ways, except perhaps for those who are very averse to experience in general;

2) move on to the next jhana; or

3) investigate this state.

It may seem incredible that the sensations of Nothingness itself could be observed to arise and pass, that is, strobe in and out of reality, or that they could be known to neither satisfy nor be self or the property of self. [I label this vj7, vipassana done on the seventh jhana.] However, this is possible, if potentially quite disconcerting due to its extreme profundity and ability to really kick some sense into the mind about the truth of things. We tend to like a place to stand, some “this side” to stay stable. In Nothingness, things are stripped down as far as you can go and still investigate, so, when the rug of the illusion of permanence is pulled out from under us by Nothingness strobing, then nothing is left, as it were. It also helps debunk the false idea that this jhana is some ultimate and stable something, some objectively existing “Void”, some “Peace that Passeth All Understanding”, some “Awareness”, some “Infinite Potential”, or whatever.

The three illusions of stability, satisfactoriness, and self can begin to be penetrated in the highest state in which this can be accomplished by paying close attention to every instant that Nothingness or equanimity are perceived with precise attention to the exact arising and passing of each, that these transient moments do not satisfy, and that neither can a self be ascribed to them. Since this is a particularly subtle business, the meditator may also leave the jhana and begin insight practice in the significant afterglow of this state, as before. Strobing sensations of Nothingness are more likely to arise during the progress of insight in the stage called “high equanimity” for those with very strong concentration skills. If you are more of a jhana practitioner and wish to try this, consider making a resolution to perceive the impermanent nature of the sensations of Nothingness before you get into that jhana, and practice seeing the impermanent nature of the jhanas before it to train the mind to becoming used to investigating jhanas.

The Eighth Jhana, Neither Perception Nor Non-Perception

If meditators wish to attain the eighth jhana, they can simply hang out in Nothingness until they get bored with perception entirely and understand that even the profoundly subtle perception that is Nothingness is subtly disconcerting or dissatisfying. Thus, the mind will eventually shift on its own to the state with the perplexing but thoroughly appropriate title of “Neither Perception Nor Non-Perception”, hereafter “the eighth jhana” or “j8” for the sake of brevity.

This state is largely incomprehensible. There is no reasonable way to attempt to describe it, save that it is a mind state. I am tempted to say that in it we are simultaneously focused so narrowly that we notice nothing and yet so broadly focused that we don’t notice even that, but such a description doesn’t do this state justice. Another way I sometimes think of this state is like what happens when you turn off an old, tube-driven black-and-white television when the screen goes blank and just before it shuts off there is this tiny pale dot in the middle of the screen. It is like what happens just at the moment that dot is right on the edge of being totally gone, as if you froze in time that edge right between the dot being there and not being there and had it apply to everything in your whole sensate world. One way or another, there is complete inattention to diversity, or divestment from attention to multiplicity, however you wish to think of it. The eighth jhana is the highest of the standard ordinary states of concentration that can be attained (ignoring the attainment of nirodha samapatti, also known as “the cessation of perception and feeling”, and some more unusual jhanic goodies detailed later). 

This state is contrasted with the first seven jhanas in that it is not possible to investigate this state, because it is too incomprehensible. [Thus, there is no vj8, just j8.] Thus, as this state ends, the meditator may return to lower states or turn to insight practice in the afterglow of this state. In contrast to the previous seven jhanas, the issue of “hard” or “soft” jhana that relates to how solidly one is in a state does not apply to the eighth jhana. You are either in it or you are not. Just as with Nothingness and due to its profundity, it is also a very common mimic of some higher attainments, leaving people confused and possibly over-calling their attainments when they confuse it for something more profound, and it can become one more of the golden chains. It is also on the standard list of “unknowing events”, and sorting out this from the other unknowing events on the list requires a sophisticated meditative palate and solid phenomenological competence.

The eighth jhana may have a certain stability that Nothingness doesn’t due to the inability to make sense of it. Thus, the mind may move fairly quickly from Boundless Consciousness through Nothingness and drop into the eighth jhana for a while, though the vaguest hint of attention to anything specific demolishes this state instantly. It is also possible to sort of drift up and down through the various formless realms, and downshifting to lower jhanas after being in higher jhanas such as this one can lend a great deal of intensity to them.

While I recommend the traditional way to attain the formless realms, cultivating each one, then, after mastering it, attempting to get to the next, that is not how I attained to them the first time. I was on a retreat and my momentary concentration had gotten quite strong through doing insight practices and, having gotten what I was gunning for on that retreat, I finally decided to take a break and see what the jhanas were about. I simply made a resolution for the jhanas to arise, inclined my mind in the direction of the smooth and peaceful, and stayed with what happened, and jhanas one through eight showed up over about forty-five minutes. This is not the typical path by which people attain them, but it is worth mentioning in order to make a general point, which is that if you get your concentration strong by any method, including momentary concentration, just inclining to the shamatha jhanas might be enough for them to occur. The flip side of this is that if your concentration is not strong, no matter how hard you try, not much will likely happen.

So, if you are having a hard time getting into jhanas, set yourself up to succeed, meaning: give yourself some high-quality protected time, pick a technique you really enjoy that has a demonstrated track record of producing strong concentration states, such as the standard kasina practices, of which a candle flame is my favorite. I have also used blue, red, and white disks and even large filled-in circles and other images such as stars with circles around them on my computer screen. Again, refer to works such as Bhante Gunaratana’s writings or the Vimuttimagga or Visuddhimagga, and practice all day long every day for a week or three or longer. It is amazing what that sort of momentum will produce, and it can open whole worlds of access that you never dreamed existed and might not have been able to reach, or reach to that degree of depth and with that facility, had you not done this. The works of Venerable Pa Auk Sayadaw are also very worth checking out, as his tradition prides itself on very strong jhana practice.

Finally, I should add that there is something I call the “post-eighth junction point” (P8JP), which is the state of mind created when we have just been in the eighth jhana, left it, and now rest in its afterglow. I should come up with a catchier name for it, as even its acronym, P8JP, is clunky to say. Anyway, this refers to the fact that once we leave the eighth jhana, all sorts of options may be open to the meditator that weren’t open in the same way before. As the “shamatha first” fans will point out, the standard Pali canon texts will say things along the lines of: the meditator left the eighth jhana, turned the mind to seeing with wisdom, and attained to awakening. Such statements refer to investigating your experience in the afterglow of the eighth jhana.

There are many options for skilled and properly attained practitioners in the P8JP, which is like standing in the Grand Central Terminal of high states and stages, or like being in a room with many open doors lining the walls that you just have to step through. I will talk about more of these later, but just keep it in mind, as a version of this will show up in the next chapter on the stages of insight. Even a few seconds in the eighth jhana produces this P8JP option enhancement effect.

Limitations of Concentration Practice

Just to drive this point home, an important feature of concentration practices is that they are not liberating in and of themselves. Even the highest of these states ends. The afterglow from them does not last long. Regular life and reality might even seem like an assault when that afterglow has worn off. However, jhana junkies abound in all traditions and even outside traditions, and many have no idea that this is what they have become. I have a friend who has been lost in the formless realms for over twenty years, attaining them again and again in practice, rationalizing that he is doing Dzogchen practice when he is just staying in the fourth through sixth jhanas, and further rationalizing that the last two formless realms are “emptiness”, and that he is enlightened. This story, or a version of it, repeats countless times. It is a true dharma tragedy.

Unfortunately, as another good friend of mine rightly pointed out, it is almost impossible to reach such people after a while. They get trapped in temporary attainments so exquisite that they have no idea they are in prison, nor do they take at all kindly to suggestions that this may be so, particularly if their identity has become bound up in their false notion that they are a realized being. Chronic jhana junkies are fairly easy to spot, even though they often imagine that they are not. We are all presumably able to take responsibility for our choices in life, so if people want to be jhana junkies, that’s their choice, and the jhanas clearly beat most things one could become addicted to. However, when people don’t realize that this is what they have become and pretend that what they are doing has anything to do with insight practices, that’s a truly lost opportunity to put those attainments into the service of achieving actual realization and true freedom.

27. The Concentration States (Shamatha Jhanas)   |  29. Kasina Practice