Details of Ways of Knowing: 13 Listening, Thinking and Meditating

Extensive Explanation of “Compendium of Ways of Knowing” – Geshe Sonam Rinchen

In addition, there are the three (types of) conceptual cognition of (1) what has been listened to, (2) (what has been) thought about and (3) (what has been) meditated upon. The meaning of each in turn is the conceptually implying awareness (1) that takes (its object) by means of merely an audio category, (2) that has found certainty (about it) from having thought about its meaning and (3) that is in an upper state (of samsaric existence) from having familiarized oneself further and further with a meaning that has arisen from thinking.

Listening to an Explanation in Order to Be Able to Remember What Was Said

Buddha taught orally and none of his teachings were committed to writing until the first century BCE, in a Pali version in Sri Lanka and a Gandhari version in Gandhara, modern-day northern Pakistan. Thus, for the first five centuries after the Buddha, the only way to learn his teachings was to listen attentively, over and again, to someone reciting them from memory and gradually to memorize them yourself. The present-day tradition of the oral transmission (lung) of texts continued among the Tibetans derives from this procedure. 

Buddha’s teachings are divided into the “scriptural Dharma teachings” (lung-bstan) and “realization Dharma teachings” (rtogs-bstan). Fully upholding Buddha’s teachings means keeping both of these in your mind – scriptural Dharma through retaining the words of the texts in your memory, and based on that, realization Dharma through retaining their meanings. This is the Buddhist tradition.

With such a method of learning, it was crucial that the person reciting the words of the teachings made no mistake and the person listening to them remembered them correctly. This procedure is indicated clearly by the words with which many sutras begin, “Thus have I heard.” Transmission of the words of a text and the receipt of that transmission, then, did not actually require either parties to understand the meaning of the words. It merely required that they got the words right. Thus, the Tibetan monastic education system begins with memorizing the texts the students receive any explanations of their meanings. The first set of examinations that students need to pass requires them merely to recite the texts by heart. 

Nowadays among the Tibetan monastics, the process of memorizing the words of the teachings and gaining the ability to remember them correctly is gained mostly by reading them and then reciting them out loud from memory again and again. The conceptual cognitions entailed in remembering the words you have listened to and memorized are called the “conceptual cognitions of what has been listened to” (thos-pa’i rtog-pa). The appearing objects (snang-yul) of these conceptual cognitions are the audio categories (sgra-spyi) of each word, and the conceptionally implied objects (zhen-yul) are mental holograms representing the generic sound of each word. With these generic sounds in mind, you are able to voice the words aloud.

Even if you do not memorize the texts and are unable to recite them from memory; nevertheless, in order to understand the teachings correctly, you need to have read or heard a correct explanation of them and you need to remember the words of the explanation correctly through the medium of audio categories. If the words of the explanation that you try to understand are the words of an incorrect explanation or are imprecise, you will be led astray from the Buddhist path.

The ability to remember the words of the teachings correctly comes from gaining the discriminating awareness that arises from listening (thos-byung shes-rab). It is said to be generated by the power of others, namely by the power or influence of their conveyance of the correct words of the teachings. 

Discriminating awareness (shes-rab) is the mental factor that focuses on an object for analysis and differentiates its strong points from its weaknesses or its good qualities from its faults. With the discriminating awareness that arises from listening, this mental factor accompanies the mental consciousness of the conceptual cognition of what has been listened to and, aimed at the audio categories of the conceptual cognition, differentiates between these categories either according or not according with fact. 

Discriminating awareness, then, has a detailed observation (so-sor rtog-pa, Skt. pratyavekshana) of its object – it observes its object in all its individual detail  – and thus is accompanied with the mental factors of gross detection (rtog-pa) and subtle discernment (dpyad-pa). 

  • Gross detection, or investigation, analyzes its object roughly to detect gross mistakes
  • Subtle discernment, or scrutiny, analyzes its object in fine detail to detect subtle mistakes.

The discriminating awareness that arises from listening, then, is gained from discerning meditation (dpyad-sgom, analytical meditation) focused on the audio categories that arise when remembering what you have heard.

When the mental factor of correct discriminating awareness (shes-rab) accompanies the conceptual cognitions with which you remember the words, that conceptual cognition becomes a valid one. You are certain that the audio categories with which you remember the words accord with the audio categories in which the words of the original teachings fit. In other words, you are able to discriminate that you remember the words correctly and the reflexive awareness that accompanies the conceptual cognitions of your remembering them cognizes your remembrances as being non-fraudulent. Without this decisiveness, your remembering of the words of a teaching and assuming that you have remembered them correctly are only a presumptive cognition.

Conceptual cognition of what has been listened to is not limited to merely listening to the Buddhist teachings. It also arises when remembering the words of an explanation of anything else you have listened to or even the words you have heard someone say in a conversation you have had with them. A precise memory of what you have heard is the essential basis for trying to understand its meaning. If you have only a partial memory and fill in the rest based on conjecture and then base your understanding of their meaning on that, you are as likely to misunderstand the meaning as when you remember the words incorrectly. A similar fault arises when you read or listen to only a partial explanation of something and then try to understand the topic based on incomplete information. 

For obvious phenomena that you can gain information about from valid sensory cognition and, based on that, then remember it later, like where you parked your car, you do not need to rely on listening to someone else to tell you where to find it. You can remember it on your own, provided that you have paid sufficient attention to where you have parked. But for information about something obscure, such as selflessness, you need to rely on a valid source of information – a valid person, book or, nowadays, a valid article or video on the Internet. 

To ascertain whether someone or something they wrote or explained is a valid source of information, you need to rely on a line of reasoning in order to generate a valid inferential cognition based on conviction (yid-ches rjes-dpag) in their authority. In short, if you wish to be able to think about and eventually understand some unfamiliar, obscure topic in a manner that will accord with fact, you must attentively listen to or read a complete and correct account from a valid source of information and remember the words correctly.

Thinking about the Words You Have Heard in Order to Understand Their Meaning

Once you can correctly remember the words that you have listened to or read, the next step is to figure out their meanings so that you understand correctly what you have heard or read. Based on the conceptual cognition of what has been listened to, you must now think about what the words mean until you get an accurate and decisive understanding of their meaning. That understanding will be a conceptual cognition of what has been thought about (bsam-pa’i rtog-pa) and will be through meaning/object categories (don-spyi) as their appearing objects.

To gain such conceptual cognition with which you remember your understanding of what you have heard or read and then thought about, you need to gain that understanding through valid inferential cognition. This is the case whether you want to gain an understanding of the uncleanness and impurity of the body by considering what is inside the intestines, or an understanding of selflessness by working through the lines of reasoning to prove it, or simply an understanding of what somebody meant by what they told you in a conversation. You gain your understanding by either thinking on your own or by discussing or debating with others. 

Since many people lack the discipline, especially as youngsters, to engage in internal contemplation and analytical thought, the technique of debate can be very useful for gaining understanding. But whether you gain your understanding through internal or external debate, in either case, the discriminating awareness arising from thinking (bsam-byung shes-rab) is generated by the power or influence of oneself. You yourself need to understand and be convinced. 

Meditating on the Meanings You Have Understood in Order to Bring about Self-Transformation

The next stage is to meditate on, for instance, the impurity of the body or selflessness, the meaning of which you have ascertained with the discriminating awareness arising from thinking. Meditation (sgom) literally means to familiarize or habituate yourself with something beneficial by repeatedly focusing on it. In order to do so, you must be able to concentrate on what you wish to become familiar with. If the conceptual cognition on which you base your meditation is indecisive wavering or a presumptive cognition, you will lack a stable object upon which to focus. And if that conceptual cognition does not accord with fact, in terms of both the words explaining the topic and their meaning, you will be meditating on an incorrect object. Therefore, before meditating, it is essential to have gained conceptual cognition apprehending what you have listened to and thought about.

Furthermore, even if you have no uncertainty about the topic for your meditation and it accords with fact, if you are continually distracted by mental wandering, flightiness of mind, mental dullness and muddleheadedness, you will not be able to focus properly on your chosen object at all. Therefore, it is necessary to develop a stilled and settled state of mind of shamatha (zhi-gnas) focused on this topic, first with inferential conceptual cognition and then with yogic bare cognition. The conceptual stage takes as its appearing object the meaning/object categories that you previously cognized with conceptual cognitions apprehending what has been thought about. 

Conceptual Cognition with Shamatha

A state of shamatha is attained through the practice of stabilizing meditation (‘jog-sgom). This practice of stabilizing meditation to attain a state of shamatha is often referred to as “shamatha meditation.” This is an example of giving the name of the result to its cause. The term “shamatha,” however, strictly refers only to the final attainment from that stabilizing meditation.

To enter into stabilizing meditation, your mind needs first to give rise to the object on which it will focus. This is done by generating, with a valid inferential cognition, a valid conceptual cognition of what has been thought about, followed by subsequent inferential cognition of it. Generating that conceptual cognition entails discerning meditation having detailed observation, with gross detection and subtle discernment, of the meaning/object categories that are the appearing objects. Once a conceptual cognition that confidently and accurately apprehends its object is established, then, with stabilizing meditation, your conceptual cognition continues to focus on these meaning/object categories but with your mental consciousness now no longer accompanied with the mental factors of gross detection and subtle discernment. 

For achieving shamatha, your stabilizing meditation progresses through nine stages of settling the mind (sems-gnas dgu) by relying on the six powers (stobs-drug) and the four types of attention (yid-byed bzhi). In the process, you overcome the five deterrents to concentration (nyes-pa lnga) by employing the eight composing mental factors (‘du-byed brgyad). 

You attain absorbed concentration (ting-nge-‘dzin, Skt. samadhi) on the ninth stage of settling the mind, the stage of absorbed settling (mnyam-par ‘jog-pa). When conceptual, it is able to focus on a meaning/object category as its appearing object continuously. It does this with mindfulness (dran-pa) and alertness (shes-bzhin), unwaveringly, so that the mind naturally settles of its own accord on that object. 

  • Mindfulness is the mental factor that prevents the consciousness and accompanying mental factors from losing or weakening their aspect of mentally holding (‘dzin-cha, mental hold) their object. Those flaws may be due to either a loss or weakening of their aspect of mentally abiding (gnas-cha, mental placement) on their object, coming from flightiness of mind (rgod-pa, mental agitation) or discursive thought (rnam-rtog), or a loss or weakening of their aspect of giving rise to an appearance (gsal-cha, mental clarity) of their object, coming from mental dullness (bying-ba). 
  • Alertness is the mental factor that checks the condition of the mental hold of mindfulness on the object of focus and, if some flaw occurs, triggers the mental factor of attention (yid-la byed-pa) to correct the fault.

When the absorbed concentration gives rise to a sense of fitness (shin-sbyangs) on both the mental and physical levels, it becomes a state of shamatha. This is a sense of fitness of being able to stay fully concentrated on anything for as long as you like.

A sense of fitness is the mental factor of feeling your mind and body to be serviceable (las-su rung-ba) for accomplishing constructive deeds as you wish, especially for working on ridding yourself of disturbing emotions. When attained with an initial level of shamatha, it is accompanied with the mental factor of physical joy (dga’-ba) and mental bliss (bde-ba) that first arose with the attainment of absorbed concentration. This mental factor has the aspect of a mental feeling of well-being (sim-pa) infusing your body and mind. But because it accompanies not only your mental cognition of your object of concentration but also your body consciousness, this mental factor of joyous happiness is not said to be congruent with your mental consciousness sharing five things in common with it. 

The fuller details of all these stages and factors can be found elsewhere. With the achievement of a state of shamatha, you have conceptual cognition of what has been meditated upon (sgom-pa’i rtog-pa). Note that a state of shamatha can only be attained with conceptual cognition and not with sensory cognition.

[See: Achieving Shamatha]

Adding a State of Vipashyana to a State of Shamatha

After attaining this sense of fitness that derives from a conceptual state of shamatha, then while maintaining this sense of fitness and absorbed concentration, you may practice further to attain an exceptionally perceptive conceptual state of mind of vipashyana (lhag-mthong). Focusing solely on the meaning/object categories that were the appearing objects of your conceptual shamatha, and without any other categories arising, such as those involved with a line of reasoning employed in inferential cognition, your conceptual cognition now employs once more the mental factors of gross detection and subtle discernment. With them, your discerning meditation “disentangles and opens up” (rnam-par ‘byed-pa) the minute details of these categories as represented by their conceptually implied object. Your observation of their individual details opens up their surface and deeper aspects. 

As is the case of calling the stabilizing meditation to attain a state of shamatha by the name of its result, namely “shamatha meditation,” similarly the discerning meditation to attain a state of vipashyana is commonly called by the name of its result, namely “vipashyana meditation.”

When, through repeated practice, you attain a second additional sense of fitness – a feeling of your body and mind now being serviceable for working not only with the needed concentration for ridding yourself of disturbing emotions but also with the needed ability to unravel all the details for ridding yourself of them – you have attained a state of the joined pair (zung-‘brel) of shamatha and vipashyana. With such a state, you now have the discriminating awareness that arises from meditation (sgom-byung shes-rab). 

If you have attained a state of vipashyana, it is pervasive that you have already achieved a state of shamatha and now have attained a joined pair of shamatha and vipashyana. If you have achieved only a state of shamatha, however, it is not pervasive that you also have a state of vipashyana. The practice of discerning meditation, however, does not require prior attainment of a state of shamatha, despite many people commonly calling such practice “vipashyana meditation.” One needs to be careful not to get confused by the common, non-technical usage of technical terminology.

A state of vipashyana rids your mind of the habits abiding as imputation phenomena on your mental continuum that have the ability to give rise to further and further contrary minds – conceptual cognitions that take their objects in a manner that is contrary to and does not accord with fact. A state of shamatha rids your mind of nourishing those habits by being enmeshed and clinging (mngon-par zhen-pa) to objects contrary to your object of concentration. 

There are two levels of vipashyana:

  • Mundane vipashyana (‘jig-rten-pa’i lhag-mthong) has the ability to provisionally suppress manifest disturbing emotions, especially longing desire for sensory objects, for the rest of this lifetime. It may arise, for instance, by being focused on the body as being impure and unclean.
  • Supramundane vipashyana (‘jig-rten-las ‘das-pa’i lhag-mthong) has the ability to attain a true stopping of all disturbing emotions and their tendencies such that they never return again. It arises by being focused on the body as being totally devoid of an impossible soul (atman). 

The attainment of those true stoppings starts to be realized, in stages, when your conceptual joined pair of shamatha and supramundane vipashyana becomes non-conceptual. In other words, the attainment of true stoppings starts to occur with the attainment of yogic bare cognition and a seeing pathway mind (mthong-lam, path of seeing)

Topics Focused on for Attaining Shamatha and Vipashyana

A frequently chosen topic of focus for developing absorbed concentration, shamatha and a joined pair of shamatha and vipashyana is the four close placements of mindfulness (dran-pa nyer-bzhag). These focus on your body, your feelings of some level of happiness or unhappiness, your mind and all phenomena as represented by your mental factors. There are a number of variations with which the meditation is done, differing in terms of the attributes ascribed to the four that you focus on. 

One variant is for overcoming the four types of incorrect consideration (tshul-min yid-la byed-pa). Here, you focus on:

  • Your body – as unclean (impure, ugly), rather than as clean (pure, beautiful)
  • Your feelings – as suffering (unsatisfying), rather than as happiness (satisfying)
  • Your mind (referring to your six types of primary consciousness) – as nonstatic (impermanent, changing from moment to moment), rather than static (permanent, unchanging)
  • All phenomena (referring to your mental factors and to the five aggregates in general) – as lacking an impossible soul of a person (gang-zag-gi bdag-med), rather than as having one and being their possessions to control.

Another variant is to focus on each of them as having as attributes the four aspects of the first noble truth, true suffering. Each is: 

  • Nonstatic 
  • Problematic (suffering)
  • Devoid – of an impossible soul (atman) that is either totally identical with or totally different from it
  • Selfless – totally lacking an impossible soul, which doesn’t exist at all.

Yet another variation is to focus on each of them as having the attribute of being examples of one of the four noble truths, with each noble truth having four aspects:

  • Your body – as an example of true suffering
  • Your feelings – as an example of the true origins of suffering, because of craving (sred-pa, thirsting) with respect to feelings, and desire and attachment with respect to the objects toward which you experience these feelings
  • Your mind – as an example of a true stopping of suffering because of it being, by nature, pure of all unawareness and disturbing emotions
  • All phenomena (referring do your mental factors and specifically to your discriminating awareness of selflessness) – as an example of a true pathway mind. 

The details of this meditation can be found elsewhere. Sautrantika follows the basic Mahayana presentation, modified according to its own assertions of selflessness.

[See: The Four Close Placements of Mindfulness in Mahayana]

An Example of a Conceptual Cognition of What Has Been Meditated Upon

To illustrate the way of knowing used in stabilizing meditation to attain conceptual cognition of what has been meditated upon, let us describe the conceptual cognition occurring in one of the close placements of mindfulness, for example on the body as being something unclean and impure.

First, with discerning meditation, you generate a conceptual cognition of what has been thought about with an inferential cognition of what is well-known – the body as something unclean and impure. You generate this by imagining what is inside the intestines and or what the body looks like when the skin has been removed or when it has rotted after death. It is well-known and conventionally accepted that such objects are unclean and impure. 

The appearing objects in the conceptual cognition are the meaning/object categories “bodies” and “being an unclean object.” The conceptionally implied object representing these two categories is a mental hologram of your body filled with blood, guts, mucus, feces and urine. Your mental consciousness is accompanied with the mental factors of gross detection and subtle discernment, as well as many other mental factors including mindfulness, alertness and so on. 

You then follow this discerning meditation, and also alternate it, with stabilizing meditation in which you continue your conceptual cognition of something derived from an inferential cognition with the same appearing objects and conceptually implied object as before. The only difference is now your mental consciousness is not accompanied with gross detection and subtle discernment. Focus only with stabilizing meditation, however, is only the case when you practice this meditation without having attained a joined pair of shamatha and vipashyana. If you practice this meditation with this joined pair, then you are able to focus on these objects with simultaneous discerning and stabilizing meditation. That means that gross detection and subtle discernment still accompany the meditation, but without disturbing the stabilizing aspect. But whether with or without this joined pair, all the other mental factors accompanying the meditation, such as mindfulness, alertness and so on, are the same.

The joined pair of shamatha and vipashyana may focus on its object either conceptually or non-conceptually, and the vipashyana within the joined pair may be either mundane (‘jig-rten-pa’i lhag-mthong) or supramundane vipashyana (‘jig-rten-las ‘das-pa’I lhag-mthong).

  • Supramundane vipashyana takes as its object only nonstaticness or coarse or subtle selflessness
  • Mundane vipashyana takes as its object anything else – for instance, the objects of the four close placements of mindfulness.

As an example, let us analyze conceptual cognition with this joined pair focused on the above example of the close placement of mindfulness on the uncleanness and impurity of the body:

  • When the conceptual meditation is practiced with merely mundane vipashyana, the objects and mental factors are the same as in what was just described above. First, the appearing objects are the categories “bodies” and “being a pure, clean object,” the conceptually implied object is a mental hologram of a body filled with feces and so on as representing both categories, and the mental factors of gross detection, subtle discernment, mindfulness, alertness and so on. After going through a line of reasoning to prove this thesis that a body filled with feces and so on is a pure, clean object, the reflexive awareness accompanying this cognition cognizes its fraudulence. Discriminating awareness refutes that the body filled with feces and so on is fit to represent an item in the category “being a pure, clean object,” and the mental consciousness then cuts off the category “being a pure, clean object” and replaces it with either the category “not being a pure clean, object” (which is the category of an objective implicative negation) or the category “being an impure, unclean object.”  Then, with a conceptual cognition of something derived from an inferential cognition, your mental consciousness cognizes the conceptually implied object of a representation of the body filled with feces and so on as an impure, unclean object. 
  • When the conceptual meditation is practiced with supramundane vipashyana, the category “being a pure, clean object” is replaced by the category “being the possession of a coarse atman.” As with mundane vipashyana, after working out the line of reasoning to prove that such a body is the possession of such an atman, reflexive awareness cognizes the fraudulence of this distorted cognition and discriminating awareness cuts off this category. Then, with a conceptual cognition of something derived from an inferential cognition, your mental consciousness explicitly apprehends the conceptually implied object, the mental hologram of a body filled with feces and so on as representing the categories “bodies” and “being an impure, unclean object” while implicitly apprehending the non-implicative negation phenomenon of “no such thing as something that can be the possession of a coarse atman.” 

The Three Planes of Samsaric Existence

There are three planes of uncontrollable recurring samsaric existence: 

  • The plane of sensory objects of desire (‘dod-khams, desire realm)
  • The plane of ethereal forms (gzugs-khams, form realm)
  • The plane of formless beings (gzugs-med khams, formless realm).

The latter two are called the upper states of samsaric existence (gong-sa) – specifically, the two upper planes (khams gong-ma). 

In terms of rebirth states, limited beings can be reborn on any of the three planes depending on the karmic potentials they have built up from their behavior in this and former lifetimes, their state of mind at the time of death, and so on. Trapped beings in the joyless realms (hell-beings), clutching ghosts (hungry ghosts), creeping creatures (animals), humanoids of the four island-worlds (the four continents) and the would-be divine (antigods) and one class of divine beings (gods) are on the plane of sensory objects of desire. Among the disturbing emotions that each of these beings has are longing desire and attachment to gross sensory objects – sights, sounds, smells, tastes and physical sensations.

A second class of divine beings is on the plane of ethereal forms. They are mostly absorbed in one of the four levels of mental constancy, the four dhyanas (bsam-gtan, Skt. dhyana), but they are not absorbed in these meditative states all the time. Among the disturbing emotions that those on the first level of mental constancy have are longing desire and attachment to the subtle sensory objects on their plane – sights, sounds and physical sensations. Beings on the plane of ethereal forms do not have nose- or tongue-sensors or olfactory or gustatory consciousness. They are provisionally detached, however, from the grosser sensory objects of the plane of sensory objects of desire. The divine beings on all four levels of mental constancy, however, all have attachment to the actual meditative states they attain and to the feelings they experience in them but lack the disturbing emotions of anger and ill-will.

A third class of divine beings is on the plane of formless beings. On this plane of samsaric existence, they are mostly absorbed in one of the even deeper meditative states, the four balanced absorptions (snyoms-‘jug, Skt. samapatti) – so called because, with them, the mental consciousness and all accompanying mental factors are equally absorbed on the object of focus. They are provisionally detached from all forms of sensory objects and thus lack a gross body and aggregate of forms, although they do have a basis of life-supporting energy. Among the disturbing emotions that they still have are attachment to the actual meditative states they attain. In addition, all the beings on all three planes have unawareness (ignorance) and grasp for an impossible self (atman) of persons.

Three things need to be differentiated here, namely the physical basis of a limited being, their cognitive sensors and their consciousness. It is not necessary for each of these to be in the same rebirth state or even on the same plane. The pervasions and possibilities are extremely complicated and beyond the scope of this work, but suffice it to say that it is possible with the physical basis of a human being of the southern continent, namely of this world, it is possible to gain the cognitive sensors and consciousnesses of the various upper planes, and even to cognize with them the subtle sensory objects of the plane of ethereal forms. The subtle sights, sounds and physical sensations of these ethereal objects are made of particles, as on the plane of sensory objects of desire, but are too subtle to be cognized by the cognitive sensors and sensory consciousnesses of that lower plane. According to Sautrantika, these subtle sensory objects are not just nominal ones, but are objectively real.

Conceptual Cognition with Minds of Upper States of Samsaric Existence

As mentioned above, on the ninth stage of settling the mind, the stage of absorbed settling (mnyam-par ‘jog-pa), you attain absorbed concentration. This is known as the “absorbed concentration of a single-pointed mind on the plane of sensory objects of desire” (‘dod-sems rtse-gcig-pa’i ting-nge-‘dzin). Although non-discursive (rnam-rtog med-pa), it is only a facsimile of shamatha (zhi-gnas-kyi rjes-su mthun-pa). 

With further stabilizing meditation, when you achieve a sense of fitness accompanying your meditation, you have achieved a state of shamatha. It is known as the “indispensable preliminary stage of the first state of mental constancy” (bsam-gtan dang-po’i nyer-bsdogs mi-lcogs-med). According to Sautrantika, you now have attained the first state of consciousness of the two upper planes, and it is indispensable for the mundane and supramundane attainments possible with an upper state consciousness.

With merely a state of shamatha, it is not possible to overcome the disturbing emotions either provisionally or permanently with the mental consciousness of the upper states of meditative constancy. To suppress them for the remainder of this lifetime, you need to add to your state of shamatha a state of mundane vipashyana; and to attain a true stopping of them, you need to add a state of supramundane vipashyana. 

Both mundane and supramundane vipashyana have two sets of objects at which they aim their accompanying mental factors of gross detection and subtle discernment:  

  • Gross detection unravels (rnam-par ‘byed-pa) the details of the drawbacks of the immediately lower state of mind as inferior, and subtle discernment unravels the details of the good points and benefits of the next higher state of mind
  • Gross detection unravels the rough details of the object of focus – for instance, the body as being something unclean and impure – of the meditation it accompanies, and subtle discernment unravels the fine details.

Only the second type is required for attaining the indispensable preliminary stage of the first state of mental constancy that is held with a joined pair of shamatha and vipashyana. The first type, however, is additionally required for going beyond this stage to attain any of the higher states of mind of the two upper planes. 

There are four states of mental constancy on the plane of ethereal forms, called simply:

  • The first state of mental constancy (bsam-gtan dang-po)
  • The second state of mental constancy (bsam-gtan gnyis-pa)
  • The third state of mental constancy (bsam-gtan gsum-pa)
  • The fourth state of mental constancy (bsam-gtan bzhi-pa).

Each of the four has a preliminary stage (nyer-bsdogs, Skt. samantaka) and an actual stage (dngos-gzhi, Skt. maula), with the actual stage of the first divided into a mere actual stage (bsam-gtan dang-po’i dngos-gzhi tsam-po-ba) and a distinguished actual stage (bsam-gtan dang-po’i dngos-gzhi khyad-par-can). 

In addition, there are four states of balanced absorption on the plane of formless beings:

  • Balanced absorption on the infinity of space (nam-mkha’ mtha’-yas snyoms-‘jug)
  • Balanced absorption on the infinity of consciousness (rnam-shes mtha’-yas snyoms-‘jug)
  • Balanced absorption on “nothing” (ci-yang med-pa’i snyoms-‘jug)
  • Balanced absorption on non-distinguishing but not no distinguishing (‘du-shes med ‘du-shes med ma-yin-pa’i snyoms-‘jug). This is also known as the balanced absorption of the peak of compulsive existence (srid-rtse’i snyoms-‘jug).

Each of these four also has a preliminary and an actual stage. Altogether, then, there are 16 stages of upper plane minds having joined shamatha and vipashyana and one having merely a state of shamatha. The topic of study dealing with them is called in Tibetan “samzug” (bsam-gzugs).

When differentiated according to the mental consciousness that is its basis (rten), the absorbed concentrations of each of these stages may be mundane when held with the mental consciousness of a non-arya or supramundane when held by that of an arya. When held by the mental consciousness of an arya, the cognitions of these upper state minds may be either conceptual or non-conceptual. When non-conceptual, they are yogic bare cognitions. When differentiated according to its focus, they are mundane when focused on tainted phenomena (zag-bcas) and supramundane when focused on untainted phenomena (zag-med) – namely, true stoppings and true pathway minds.

The conceptually implying awareness (zhen-rig) that is in an upper state (gong-sa’i zhen-rig), mentioned in our text as a conceptual cognition of what has been meditated upon, can be any of the above-mentioned 17 when they are conceptual. The objects cognized by these conceptual cognitions can be extremely varied, depending on the states to which the person, consciousness, cognitive sensors and object belong, which may all be different for one cognition.

To attain any of the eight actual stages, whether with a joined pair that contains mundane or supramundane vipashyana, requires employing the seven types of attention (yid-la byed-pa bdun) paid to the various actual states of absorption. Six of them function during the preliminary stage of each of these states of absorption as the cause for the attainment of the actual stage of that state and the seventh occurs during the actual stage of that state with its attainment. With the attainment of a ninth stage of settling the mind, you attain a beginner mind for the (seven) attentions (yid-la byed-pa’i las dang-po-pa), but that is not counted as one of these seven.

Here is not the place to elaborate in detail on these seven types of attention. But just in brief they are:

  1.  The attention that individualizes the characteristics (mtshan-nyid so-sor rig-pa’i yid-byed) – the attention that individualizes the characteristics of meditative states as the lower one being coarser and the higher one being more peaceful.
  2. The attention that arises from firm conviction (mos-pa-la byung-ba’i yid-byed) – the attention that has the firm unshakeable conviction in the lower state being coarser and the higher one being more peaceful 
  3. Isolating attention (rab-tu dben-pa’i yid-byed) – the attention that serves as an opponent that isolates your mind from the gross level of attachment to the coarser, lower state
  4. The attention with which you withdraw delight (dga’-ba sdud-pa’i yid-byed) – the attention with which you withdraw delight in the coarser, lower state, having isolated your mind from the middling level of attachment to that state
  5. The attention for discerning (dpyod-pa’i yid-byed) – the attention to check if you still have the slight level of attachment to the coarser, lower state and, when you discover that there is still some attachment left, the attention to apply opponents so as to isolate your mind from this slight level
  6. The attention of final application (sbyor-ba mthar-thug-pa’i yid-byed) – the attention with which you apply the opponents to finally isolate your mind from the slightest level of attachment to the coarser, lower state
  7. The resultant attention from final application (sbyor-ba mthar-thug-pa’i ‘bras-bu’i yid-byed) – the attention with which you have temporarily suppressed all levels of attachment to the coarser, lower state as you enter the actual state of this stage of absorbed concentration. 

In general, then, each of the six causal types of attention employs the type of vipashyana with which: 

  • The gross detection unravels the drawbacks of desire and attachment to the phenomena of the immediately lower state 
  • The subtle discernment unravels the good qualities of the phenomena of the immediately upper state.

With each of these six causal types of attention, the discerning meditation of the vipashyana unravels, like this, drawbacks and good qualities, and thus functions as an opponent for suppressing (in the case of mundane vipashyana) or eliminating (in the case of supramundane vipashyana) an increasingly subtler degree of desire and attachment to the phenomena of the immediately lower state. The meditation alternates this type of discerning meditation repeatedly with stabilizing meditation with a joined pair until the degree of desire and attachment focused on at that causal stage has actually been suppressed or eliminated. You then proceed to meditate with the next of these six causal types of attention. 

Simultaneous with the suppression or elimination the sixth type of attention, you attain the seventh resultant type of attention and the actual state of the next higher level of mental constancy or balanced absorption. This manner of meditation resembles the meditation done with yogic bare cognition and a seeing pathway mind (path of seeing) in which uninterrupted pathway minds (bar-chad med-lam) and liberated pathway minds (rnam-grol lam) alternate.

With mundane vipashyana, it is possible to suppress for the rest of this lifetime the disturbing emotions, particularly desire and attachment, directed toward the phenomena of all three planes of samsaric existence, except toward the phenomena of the peak of compulsive existence, the highest state on the plane of formless beings. This is because there is no higher state within compulsive existence that the subtle discernment of the mundane vipashyana can unravel the drawbacks of. But with this attainment, you still have not rooted out the tendencies of this attachment, so it will return in future lives. To get rid of these tendencies requires supramundane vipashyana.

The Mental States on the Stages of the Two Upper Planes

On the preliminary stages of each of the states of mental constancy and balanced absorption, then, when accompanied by a state of mundane vipashyana, your mental consciousness is accompanied by gross detection of the drawbacks of the immediately lower stage and subtle discernment of the benefits of actual stage to which it is preliminary. With each progressively higher actual stage, not only is an increasingly subtler degree of desire and attachment to the phenomena of the immediately lower state temporarily blocked or eliminated, but increasingly more phenomena are temporarily blocked. In all actual stages, however, your joined pair of shamatha and vipashyana has the gross detection and subtle discernment that unravel the gross and subtle details of what the joined pair focuses on, for instance the body as unclean and impure. Let us briefly survey these stages when held merely with mundane vipashyana and conceptual mental consciousness.

On the indispensable preliminary stage to the first state of mental constancy, you strive to temporarily suppress desire and attachment for the gross sensory objects – sights, sounds, smells, taste and physical sensations – of the plane of sensory objects of desire. You do this by focusing with gross detection on the drawbacks of such objects and desire for them. With subtle discernment, you focus on the benefits of the plane of ethereal forms. On this plane, there are only subtle sensory objects, and they include only sights, sounds and tactile sensations, no smells or taste. Your olfactory and gustatory consciousnesses are temporarily blocked, as are all physical or mental feelings of unhappiness, as well as the mental factors of anger and ill-will.

When you achieve the temporary suppression of desire and attachment to gross sensory objects, you attain the actual stage of this first state of mental constancy. 

  • On the mere actual stage, you continue to have the gross detection and subtle discernment of inferior and superior stages. 
  • On the distinguished stage of this first actual state, this type of gross detection is temporarily suppressed. 

On the actual stage of the second state of mental constancy, both gross detection and subtle discernment of inferior and superior stages are temporarily suppressed. They are not manifest in the actual stage of any state of absorbed concentration above this, although they are present in the preliminary stages for each. From the actual second state upwards, visual, auditory and corporeal consciousnesses are also temporarily suppressed. Now you are able to cognize the ethereal forms on this plane merely with mental consciousness. Thus, there can be no non-determining sensory bare cognition from this second state upwards. Unlike deep sleep, however, you do have mindfulness and, unlike the dream state, your conceptual cognitions are most often not distorted fantasies, although they may be. 

Since sensory consciousness has temporarily ceased, likewise temporarily blocked are all feelings of physical happiness. This is because such feelings are those that accompany sensory cognitions of sensory objects experienced as pleasant. It should be noted that, except for gross detection and subtle discernment of inferior and superior stages, whatever has been blocked on the actual stage of one state will also be blocked on the preliminary and actual stages of the subsequently higher states.

On the actual stage of the third state of mental constancy, all feelings of mental happiness are also temporarily suppressed. You experience instead an undisturbing state of peace of mind, which is a blissful state not in the category of either physical or mental happiness. In some texts, this type of feeling will be referred to by the same term as physical happiness, but it should not be confused with the feeling of happiness that accompanies sensory cognition. This latter has already been suppressed on the actual stage of the second state.

Even more refined is the actual stage of the fourth state of mental constancy. Here, even the blissful feeling of peace of mind is suppressed. The only feeling that accompanies the mental consciousness here is the neutral one of a total equanimity. This neutral feeling will accompany all the states of balanced absorption of formless beings up to, but not including the actual stage of the balanced absorption on non-distinguishing but not no distinguishing. It should be noted that the two types of a sense of fitness that accompany the joined pair of shamatha and vipashyana with each of these upper state minds has only the feelings accompanying it that have not yet been suppressed on that stage.

On the preparatory stage of the balanced absorption on the infinity of space, the first stage with a consciousness on the plane of formless beings, your gross detection unravels and focuses on the drawbacks of all forms of sensory phenomena of the plane of ethereal forms and of desire and attachment to them. Your subtle discernment unravels and focuses on the good qualities and benefits of this actual first stage on the plane of formless beings, in which all desire and attachment to form has ceased and concentration is absorbed on an infinity that is limitless like space. When you achieve the actual stage of this formless state, all attachment to form is temporarily blocked. It does not follow, however, that on this actual stage your mental consciousness always focuses in meditation on an infinity that is limitless like space. It can take any object appropriate to itself – as is the case with the other three balanced absorptions on this plane – but will be accompanied with attachment for space-like infinity. 

On the actual stage of the balanced absorption on the infinity of consciousness, attachment to space-like infinity is temporarily ceased, but here there is attachment for the infinity that is limitless like consciousness, 

On the actual stage of the balanced absorption on “nothing,” attachment to the consciousness-like infinity is temporarily ended, but now there is attachment to not having your mind be focused on anything. 

Finally, on the actual stage of the balanced absorption on non-distinguishing but not no distinguishing, which is at peak of compulsive existence, attachment to not having your mental consciousness be focused on anything is temporarily suppressed. Furthermore, both coarse distinguishing and the neutral feeling of equanimity are also temporarily suppressed, although there is still subtle distinguishing. Here, however, there is still attachment to this state in which there is no coarse distinguishing, but which is not without subtle distinguishing. 

Concerning all these upper state stages of mind, if the body of the person experiencing them in meditation is on the plane of sensory objects of desire, their reflexive awareness accompanying the mental consciousness in these states will also be on the plane of sensory objects of desire.

The Meditative Attainments from Balanced Absorption on Non-Distinguishing and on Cessation

These four actual stages of balanced absorption need to be differentiated from the meditative attainment from a balanced absorption on non-distinguishing (‘du-shes med-pa’i snyoms-‘jug) and the meditative attainment from a balanced absorption on cessation (‘gog-pa’i snyoms-‘jug). The four actual stages of balanced absorption are levels of absorbed concentration that are ways of being aware of something and are held with mental consciousness. Although the technical terms for the two meditative attainments are merely the “balanced absorption on non-distinguishing” and the “balanced absorption on cessation,” these terms are examples of a result being called by the name of its cause. They refer to what is attained (not the attainment itself) during the meditative absorption – namely, a non-congruent affecting variable, an objective entity that is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the mental consciousness of someone who engages in such a meditative state. 

The meditative attainment from a balanced absorption on non-distinguishing may occur on the mental continuum of a human, or of a god on either the plane of sensory objects of desire or the plane of ethereal forms, but only when any of them is still an ordinary being, not yet an arya. The balanced absorption itself, however, is with a mental consciousness on the fourth level of mental constancy on the plane of ethereal forms. The meditative attainment gained during this balanced absorption is a temporary blockage, during the absorption, of the six types of primary consciousness (so, both sensory and mental consciousness) that engage with external sensory objects (‘jug-sems), both coarse and ethereal, and the mental factors congruent with them that have stable continuums – especially, feelings and gross distinguishing. The mental consciousness is turned exclusively inwards.

Unlike the actual stage of the fourth level of mental constancy, the balanced absorption on non-distinguishing is not preceded by a preliminary stage. The mind that enters into this balanced absorption is parted from desire and attachment to all phenomena of the third level of mental constancy and below but is not parted from desire and attachment to the phenomena of the fourth level of mental constancy and above. It enters into this absorption through the gateway of the determination to be free (renunciation) of feelings and distinguishing and the discordant consideration (tshul-min yid-byed) that mistakes the consciousness of this fourth level of mental constancy, which by nature is temporarily free of all mental and physical happiness and unhappiness, for liberation from all sufferings of samsara. Despite being mistaken about what the state of liberation actually is; nevertheless, this is a constructive motivation since it is a wish for liberation that regards meditative attainment as the pathway for attaining it. 

The noncongruent affecting variable that arises on the mental consciousness during the balanced absorption continues on the mental consciousness of the person who engaged in the meditation, but without causing further blockages of primary consciousness facing outwards and its congruent feelings and distinguishing during the rest of that lifetime. The positive karmic force (merit) from engaging in this meditation has the certitude of ripening into the aggregates of a future rebirth as a god on the fourth stage of mental constancy on the plane of ethereal forms. It ripens into such a rebirth, however, only in two lifetimes after the lifetime in which the meditative attainment is gained. This is because this non-congruent affecting variable that is this meditative attainment weakens during the lifetime in which it is attained. 

The result of this weakening is that, if it was first attained during a lifetime as a human or as a god on the plane of sensory objects of desire, the karmic potential first ripens into the aggregates of a next lifetime as a god on the first level of mental constancy on the plane of ethereal forms. If it was first attained during a lifetime as a god on the plane of ethereal forms, the karmic potential first ripens into the aggregates of a next lifetime on the same level of mental constancy as that on which it was first attained. 

In either case, during this second lifetime you reinforce the non-congruent affecting variable that is this meditative attainment by engaging once more in the balanced absorption on non-distinguishing. You do this because the karmic potential for this meditation planted in the previous lifetime now gives rise to a result that corresponds to its cause. With this meditative attainment now strengthened by repeating the balanced absorption, the positive karmic potential from engaging in this meditation ripens, in the immediately following lifetime, into the aggregates of a god on the fourth level of mental constancy on the plane of ethereal forms.

During that lifetime as this type of god, this noncongruent affecting variable will become active and function as a temporary blockage, for 500 eons during that lifetime as this type of god, of your mental consciousness engaged with external ethereal sensory objects and its accompanying stable mental factors of a neutral feeling of equanimity and coarse distinguishing. This noncongruent affecting variable that is now making this temporary blockage during that lifetime as this type of god is called by the name of its effect, a “state of non-distinguishing” (‘du-shes med-pa). At the conclusion of these 500 eons, your mental consciousness is once more able to cognize external ethereal objects, and the neutral feeling of equanimity and coarse distinguishing become manifest again. 

Similar to the meditative attainment from a balanced absorption on non-distinguishing, the meditative attainment from a balanced absorption on cessation is also a noncongruent affecting variable that is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the mental consciousness. 

Here, however, it occurs only on the mental continuum of an arya who engages in this meditation and only during a human lifetime. 

The balanced absorption on cessation is not preceded by a preliminary stage. As an arya, you enter into this absorption with the wish for a state of peace but not out of a determination to be free of suffering (renunciation) and, with discordant consideration, you regard a state that is parted from feelings and distinguishing to be a state of peace. Your wish for a state of peace, however, although parted from desire and attachment to all phenomena of the actual stage of balanced absorption on nothingness and below, is not parted from desire and attachment to the phenomena of the actual stage of balanced absorption on non-distinguishing but not no distinguishing. 

For the duration of your balanced absorption on cessation, the meditative attainment gained from the absorption functions as a temporary blockage of your six types of primary consciousness that engage with external coarse or ethereal objects and the mental factors congruent with them that have not only stable continuums, but also unstable continuums. Thus, not only are feelings and gross distinguishing temporarily blocked, but also temporarily blocked are all the automatically arising disturbing emotions that you have still have not rid yourself of (abandoned) as an arya. 

This blockage lasts only as long as the balanced absorption lasts. As a result, the karmic potential from this meditation ripens into the aggregates of a rebirth as a formless god on the level of the balanced absorption on non-distinguishing but not no distinguishing. It ripens as such either in the immediately following lifetime or, if the karmic potential from it has weakened, it ripens first into the aggregates of a god on the plane of ethereal forms, where the meditation is repeated, and then, in the next lifetime, into the aggregates of a god on this peak of samsaric existence.

Although the balanced absorptions on non-distinguishing and on cessation lack gross distinguishing, yet they are not states with no distinguishing at all. They still have a subtle form of this mental factor. Although during the balanced absorptions the six types of primary consciousness that engage with external coarse and ethereal objects are temporarily blocked, there is still subtle mental consciousness. And, congruent with this consciousness are the disturbing emotion of attachment to this balanced absorption and the disturbing attitude of a deluded outlook toward the transitory network (‘jig-lta), which has the attitude of “me” and “mine” with respect to this meditative state. 

According to the Jetsunpa textbook tradition followed here, this subtle conceptual mental consciousness is a subliminal awareness (bag-la nyal). With subliminal awareness, the consciousness cognizes the involved object, but the person does not. A more common example of subliminal awareness occurs while asleep. Your subliminal ear consciousness takes the sound of your mechanical alarm clock ticking as its involved object, but you as a person do not hear it. As, like this, there is no break in your ear consciousness manifestly functioning while asleep, it is possible for you to hear the alarm when it rings.

Groupings of Upper State Minds

Any of the upper states of consciousness can be either conceptual or non-conceptual. Thus conceptual cognitions of what has been meditated upon can be experienced with any of them. Some of these, however, are often grouped together in certain contexts. Three specific groupings are often mentioned. Since there can be much confusion about them, let us briefly explain them. 

In order to attain liberation, it is necessary to rid your mind of the disturbing emotions – both the doctrinally based and the automatically arising ones – that are associated with each of the three planes and nine states (khams-gsum sa-dgu). The three planes are the planes of sensory objects of desire, ethereal forms and formless beings. The nine states (sa-dgu), all of which are on the upper two planes, are:

  • The indispensable preliminary stage to the first state of mental constancy
  • The actual stages of the four states of mental constancy
  • The actual stages of the four balanced absorptions.

You do not need to be reborn as an upper plane god, however, in order to rid your mind of the disturbing emotions that are associated with the various stages there. You can do so on the basis of a human body, but according to Sautrantika, not with a mental consciousness that is still on the plane of sensory objects of desire.

You attain true stoppings of the doctrinally based disturbing emotions associated with the three planes and nine states by means of the non-conceptual total absorption (mnyam-bzhag) of a seeing pathway of mind (path of seeing). Such a total absorption is with yogic bare cognition. This yogic bare cognition of a seeing pathway of mind can only be first attained with the mental consciousness of a conceptual joined pair of shamatha and vipashyana that is in one of the six states of mental constancy (bsam-gtan sa-drug) on the plane of ethereal forms; but only when that mental constancy occurs on the basis of your body as a human on the southern continent. Such a joined pair cognizes the subtle nonstaticness and then the coarse selflessness of your objective self as an imputation phenomenon on the basis of one of your aggregates, for instance your body.

These six states of mental constancy are:

  • The indispensable preliminary stage to the first state of mental constancy 
  • The mere and distinguished actual stages of the first state of mental constancy
  • The actual stages of the second, third and fourth states of mental constancy.

Once you have attained a true stopping of all the doctrinally based disturbing emotions, you may go on to have bare yogic cognition with any of the nine levels of untainted mental consciousness. They are “untainted” (zag-med) because they are true pathways of mind having true stoppings of the doctrinally based disturbing emotions. With any of these nine levels of untainted mental consciousness, you may then attain an accustoming pathway of mind (path of meditation), with which you rid your mind of the automatically arising disturbing emotions associated with the three planes and nine states, and then go on to attain a pathway of mind needing no further training (path of no more learning) – in other words, liberation. You may do this on the basis of either a human body or the body of a god on either the plane of ethereal forms or the plane of formless beings. To rid yourself of the automatically arising disturbing emotions, your yogic bare cognition with any of these nine levels of untainted mental consciousness must now cognize the subtle nonstaticness and then the subtle selflessness of your objective self as an imputation phenomenon on the basis of one of your aggregates.

The nine levels of untainted mental consciousness are:

  • The above six states of mental constancy
  • The actual stages of the first three balanced absorptions.

This is not the place to go into all the details of how all these riddances (abandonments) are attained. But, in summary, a seeing pathway of mind, according to Sautrantika, can only be attained with a mental consciousness on the plane of ethereal forms, while an accustoming pathway of mind and liberation can only be attained with a mental consciousness on either the plane of ethereal forms or the plane of formless beings. To attain any of these, however, requires first having valid conceptual cognitions of what has been listened to, thought about and meditated upon. Valid inferential cognition, which is exclusively conceptual, then, is essential for attaining liberation.

Top