1 Nigul

Dryden Essay Begins With A Discussion Of Weegie Boards

I remember I was about six when my 16-year- old sister had several of her girlfriends at our home for a slumber party. I was not interested in girls yet so the night was extremely uneventful for me. At least most of the night was uneventful. The only interesting part of that night came late in the evening when I heard loud screaming coming from inside her bedroom. Then her bedroom door flew open with such force that it sucked the air out of the hallway where I was....

I saw my sister run out of her darkened room and then accost my mother as she was watching television in the living room. I do not remember what she said, but I remember she was hysterical. All I remember next was our mother, wearing her irritated face, came into the hallway, charged my sister’s room, turned on the lights, and told all the girls that she was taking the “Wee Gee Board” and that everyone had to go to bed. None of the girls protested; they actually looked relieved. This was the moment when my fascination with the Ouija Board began. Just the look on my sister’s face convinced me that there were magical powers in that board. What six-year-old little brother would not want to somehow wield the power of a board that could terrify his annoying older sister almost to the point of tears.

My memory of this incident is vague with the passage of years. As I grew older I began to realize that there is far more to this enigmatic board game than just a tool to terrorize a sibling. I learned that some people thought that it was a communication device with the spirit world. I learned that some people believed it was a dangerous tool that, when used, might inadvertently summon a demon, or worse. The mystical and antiquated box the board came in was enough to convince me of its magical powers. Years later I began to notice that the thing was sold at “Toys R Us” and that “Parker Brothers” was stamped on the side of the box. As an adult I eventually became a paranormal investigator. Once I started studying the occult, I learned that this portal to the other side might actually be nothing more than a misunderstood parlor trick. So what is the Ouija Board?


Communication with spirits, in its many forms, has a nebulous history that prevents us from knowing the “who” and “when” of its invention. Attempts by mortals to communicate with the dead date back thousands of years. There are many methods of divination that claim to allow communication with spirits and beings that have knowledge of this world beyond that of mere mortals. Among them are scrying, crystal balls, séances, drug induced trances, animal and human sacrifice, Herkimers, dactylomancy, automatic writing, tarot cards, and automatism. However, an important distinction needs to be made between Ouija Boards and these other methods: Ouija does not overtly claim to require use by a spiritualist or priest specifically trained to carry out the ritual (Martinelli, 2009, p. 49). Most of these other methods were typically executed by shamans, priests, or priestesses. Many involve elaborate rituals. The Ouija, on the other hand, will allegedly work even when operated by teenaged girls wearing pajamas at a slumber party.

While most of the more ancient divination methods have an unknown origin, the origin of the Ouija Board is much more recent and relatively well known. The origin of the predecessor to the Ouija Board, known as a “Talking Board,” is not well known but can be generally dated to around the 1860s (Martinelli, 2009, p. 49). The first patented “Talking Board” can be dated to February 10, 1891. It was patented by Elijah Jefferson Bond in Baltimore, Maryland (Hunt, 1985, p. 5). The board patented by Bond evolved slightly and eventually became the Ouija Board we know today. However, other manufacturers continued to make their own versions, which commonly retained the name “Talking Board.” Bond sold the rights to the Ouija Board to William Fuld the following year, and Fuld made a fortune off the board (Hunt, 1985, p. 5). The board generally sold better during bad times in America than it did during good times. Some of the best-selling years of the Ouija Board were during World War I, the Depression, World War II,and the 1960s (Hunt, 1985, p. 5). In 1966 Parker Brother’s, a popular board game manufacturer, purchased the rights to the board and moved the production factory to none other than Salem, Massachusetts (Hunt, 1985, p. 5). Another board game company, Hasbro, purchased Parker Brothers in 1991 and currently produces various Ouija Boards, including one that glows in the dark.

Allegedly, the name “Ouija” comes from a synthesis of the French word “Oui” and the German word “Ja,” both of which translate to the English “Yes” (Online Etymology Dictionary). Some, however, claim that the word “Ouija” means “good luck” in ancient Egyptian. There currently is no conclusive evidence to substantiate this latter claim, though early advertisements for the board carried the subtitle “The Good Luck Board.” One tradition states that the name comes from the Hindi word “Ojha” which purportedly means “the ones who deal with spirits” (Wikipedia, 2010). There is no evidence to indicate that the term was used to describe a Talking Board prior to the time when it was being commercialized by Bond and Charles Kennard, who also participated in the early development of the board.

The board has a history both rooted in ancient necromancy as well as late 19th century commercialism. However, the appeal of the board has always remained tied to the belief that the board is ultimately paranormal in nature.

Paranormal Ouija

There are many theories and stories that claim to document the supernatural nature of the Ouija board. J. Edward Cornelius (2005) notes the following:

It is the general belief that if you dispose of the board improperly that the spirits you’ve summoned will come back to haunt you. Many sources claim that you should break the board into seven pieces and put the remnants into a deep hole, then you must say a prayer over it and sprinkle it with Holy Water before burying the board. I have also read that if you burn the board it might scream, and those who have heard the Ouija scream have died within 36 hours. (p. 6)

Cornelius also cites a common idea that the story behind William Peter Blatty’s, The Exorcist, is based on true events that were set in motion when a young girl was playing with a Ouija Board (p. 7). As such, a common fear is that using Ouija boards can lead to demonic possessions.

Many ideas exist that claim to interpret the board’s unnatural actions. Cornelius points out that some people believe that if the planchette is moved, presumably by a spirit, to each of the four corners of the board that this indicates you have contacted an evil spirit. If the planchette falls off the board, at any time, this indicates the spirit has been released (p. 7).

Some individuals claim to have received inspiration from spirits that have communicated to them through the board. Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), claimed to have received messages from the spirit world via Ouija Board that inspired the creation of the 12 step program used by AA today (Cheever, 2004, p. 157, 204-205).

The Ouija and Psychology

The Ouija Board presents an interesting existential paradox. Is it a game? This theory is supported by the fact that it is produced by board game manufacturers, such as Parker Brothers and Hasbro. Is it a spirit communication device? This theory is supported by popular urban legends, as mentioned by Cornelius and Cheever. Or is it something different? A third theory posits that the board is neither a game nor a demonic portal. This third theory argues that the board represents the manifestation of psychological and physiological influences.

In 1852, prior to the patent of the Ouija Board we know today, physiologist William Benjamin Carpenter conducted a series of experiments testing what he would later describe as the “Ideo-motor principal of action” (Carpenter, 1852, p. 4). The experiments he conducted used a common type of divination method used in his day, which involved tying a pendulum to an individual’s finger. The individual would then hold their hand over something similar to a talking board. The experiments Carpenter conducted involved having a person hold a pendulum (tied to their finger) over a set of random objects set about randomly on a table. The movement of the pendulum over letters, or toward certain objects, was believed to reflect responses from spirits to questions posed by participants. Carpenter sought to explain this phenomenon scientifically and he did so by developing an idea that would become known as the “Ideomotor Effect."

This theory states that humans can, and do, move their muscles using “automatic or reflex movements” in response to their own impressions, sensations, ideas, and emotions. According to Carpenter, such movements would occur before we have engaged our intellection thought processes, or at least without such thought processes being aware of our movements. Carpenter’s theory has been used to argue that it is possible that we sometimes move our hands without fully realizing it. It has thus been argued that the movement of the planchette on a Ouija Board is representative of this. It is essentially the idea that our muscles are moving, without our fully being aware, in response to our thoughts and predispositions. He states the following at the conclusion of his 1852 article:

… the movements of the ‘divining rod,’ and the vibration of bodies suspended from the finger, both of which have been clearly proved to depend on the state of expectant attention on the part of the performer, his will being temporarily withdrawn from control of his muscles by the state of abstraction to which his mind is given up, and the anticipation of a given result being the stimulus which directly and involuntarily prompts the muscular movements that produce it (Carpenter, 1852, p. 5).

Final Thoughts

This article has answered the question “What is a Ouija Board” not with a single answer but with a list of possibilities. The board could be a game. It could be a spiritual texting device. It could be all in our head, literally. The Ouija Board could be all of these or something entirely different. The board continues to spark our imagination and inspire our thoughts. The fact that no definite answer can ever be made with regard to the nature of the board is a reflection of the fact that there is much yet we do not understand about the human mind and the metaphysical world. Whether the Ouija Board will answer those questions remains to be seen. Research may need to gather data from slumber parties as well as laboratories to obtain an understanding of this enigmatic board: an understanding that encompasses the many facets of the Ouija Board.


Carpenter, W. B. (2003). On the Influence of Suggestion in Modifying and Directing Muscular Movement, Independent of Volition. Retrieved from http://www.sgipt.org/medppp/psymot/carp1952.htm

Cheever, S (2004). My Name is Bill. New York, NY: Washington Square Press.

Cornelius, J. E. (2005). Aleister Crowley and the Ouija Board. Port Towsend, WA: Feral House.

Hunt, S. (1985). Ouija: The Most Dangerous Game. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Martinelli, P. A. (2009, November). "Beware the Talking Board!" Antiques and Collecting Magazine 114 (9), 48-53.

Online Etymology Dictionary (2010). "Ouija." Retrieved from http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=Ouija


     It seems to be a general law of human nature that if we cannot ignore the truth, then we must fight tooth and nail against it. The following is, in one respect at least, my most Buddhist essay (setting aside the Appendix), as the main point made in it stands or falls on a tenet of Theravada Buddhist philosophy which, perhaps, cannot be empirically demonstrated or logically proved. Those who are not Buddhists and who cannot accept the conclusion of the argument need simply to reject the premise on which it is based, and have done with it. Devout Buddhists, on the other hand (if any of them actually bother to read this), may have to fling it aside and forget every having read it, misunderstand it, or else become indignant, thereby rejecting the argument for emotional reasons. This is because the following investigation of Dhamma, like virtually everything I write, runs counter to the common trend. The cause of this is, presumably, excess of independent critical thought in the investigation of Dhamma (that is, reasoning too much about religion); and the purpose of it is to stimulate thought—despite the troublesome fact, which I learned years ago, that most Theravada Buddhists do not much appreciate having their thought stimulated, with some of them even bitterly resenting it. But, it is useless for me to lament against devout religious dogmatists, just as it would be useless for them to lament against a “Mara’s advocate” or sarcastic heretic since, as the following discussion attempts to show, our experiences in life are each our own doing anyway. Thus, if you read this, you have nobody to blame but yourself. It is your own fault. Incidentally, the essay itself is largely an exercise in playing with or manipulating ideas, almost to the extent of a reductio ad absurdum, while the Appendix, which is almost as long as the essay to which it is appended, takes one or two steps in the direction of actual scholarship. Therefore readers who find the main essay to be too frivolous or “far out” may have greater appreciation for the discussion contained in the Appendix. Even though religious people tend to dislike challenges to their religious point of view regardless of how those challenges are presented: frivolously, scholastically, or otherwise—even firmly entrenched Buddhaghosists may derive benefit from perusing the following discussions if they mindfully observe the aversion which arises in their mind, and mindfully turn the pages. And so, with that as a preamble and a fair warning, let us proceed.
     The tarot cards used by psychics and fortunetellers are manufactured in factories in essentially the same manner as are ordinary playing cards. They are made of the same kind of cardboard and ink, and coated with the same plastic. There is no machine at the factory which inoculates these cards with special occult powers which enable them to predict the future or to probe into the hidden depths of the human psyche. They are simply cards, essentially no different from the cards used in playing poker, pinochle, or cribbage. Even so, it may be that some people with genuine psychic talent really are able to use tarot cards to obtain information apparently unobtainable by more ordinary, mundane means.
     Similarly, Ouija boards are manufactured by a well-known toy and game company, possibly at the very same factory that produces toys and games. As with the tarot cards, a Ouija board and the polystyrene plastic planchette that accompanies it are composed of mundane, ordinary materials, and there is no machine or special process employed to endow them with supernatural powers. Yet many will testify, from their own experience, that truly astonishing information may be derived by means of a Ouija board, some of this information apparently being unavailable through more “normal” methods. This does not necessarily imply that Ouija boards really do enable their users to contact a world of spirits; but at the very least, they do seem to serve as a tool for releasing ideas generated in the subconscious mind of those who experiment with them. Similar arguments could be put forth with regard to crystal balls, raw egg whites sinking in water, tea leaves floating on water, cast yarrow stalks, pendulums (both store-bought and homemade), the ball-point pens used in automatic writing, and all the paraphernalia employed for acquiring information via supernatural channels.
     Astrology is generally viewed as pseudoscience in western society nowadays, and even astrologers themselves scorn the sort of astrological advice that is published in newspapers and popular magazines. From a superficial or materialistic point of view, it does seem rather unlikely, to say the least, that the positions of stellar bodies dozens or even hundreds of light years distant from the earth could have any measurable or significant effect upon the destinies of human beings, or even that planets such as Mars or Saturn, although much closer, could produce any more effect than the ancient mythological gods after whom they were named. Some scientific evidence does suggest that people born at different times of year tend to have some notably different personality traits; but this might be conditioned essentially by the differences of season, and so by the position of only one heavenly body in relation to the earth, namely the sun. Nevertheless, some astrologers apparently can and do derive information just as remarkable as that derivable from tarot cards, Ouija boards, or other psychic devices, by the drawing up of astrological charts. Interestingly, there are a few of these astrologers who hardly look at the chart at all after they have drawn it up. For example, one may simply hold the chart in her hands and enter a light trance state in order to “interpret” the chart. Thus the information generated would seem to be more the result of the trance than any astronomical or astrological calculations. Another may place the chart on a table, ritualistically arrange other objects around it, and perform a kind of ceremony with lit candles, chanting, and other contrivances in order to make a proper astrological “reading.” The majority, of course, put their faith in the calculations; although it may be that the actual positions of the stars and planets are no more relevant or essential than the polystyrene of a Ouija board’s planchette. The faith in the system, the faith itself, may be what is truly relevant.
     Another case in point is what was formerly known as spirit mediumship or Spiritualism, and more recently has acquired the designation of “channelling.” In the book Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy, which is virtually a second Bible to the Christian Scientists, the author gives a rather interesting explanation of spirit mediumship, which may very well be a true explanation. She says that spirits may be said really to exist in a sense, but even granting that they do exist, as a rule they exist in their own version of reality, which is quite different from ours, and so do not communicate with humans. On the other hand, every person has literally infinite potential to perform what are vulgarly called “miracles,” and to access omniscience. The reason why almost all people are unable to exercise these powers is that they earnestly believe that they are unable—the limitations of their beliefs limit their abilities. They have a lack of "faith." So what happens is that, say, a typical middle-class, middle-aged housewife simply cannot believe that she has psychic access to portentous, profound knowledge, but she can believe that a spirit communicating through her does have this access; consequently her subconscious imagination conjures up a fictional spirit personality which delivers the information, generally while the “medium” is in a hypnotic trance. In modern psychological parlance it would be called a case of hysterical dissociation.1 The fictional spirit is employed, without the knowledge of the medium’s conscious ego, as a kind of gimmick for drawing forth or focusing the medium’s own psychic ability, much as tarot cards, Ouija boards, and so on are employed for essentially the same purpose.2
     It is at this point that Buddhist philosophy enters the picture, particularly as it regards the principle of Karma. Many people, including many professed Buddhists, think of karma as a kind of impersonal, metaphysical Law of Conservation of Moral Energy—for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; thus, so to speak, whenever a moral or immoral act is performed a figure is registered in some invisible cosmic ledger, which remains there until cosmic forces eventually equalize the balance. However, karma is not so much an impersonal Universal Law as an intimate psychological one, karma being in fact a volitional mental state, or complex of volitional mental states. As the Buddha states in a famous Pali passage, “Cetanāhaṁ bhikkhave kammaṁ vadāmi”—“Monks, I declare volition to be karma.”3
     One point that is generally recognized about karma is that it is supposed to determine, or at least influence, the events of our lives. According to Theravada Buddhist philosophical doctrine all pleasant or painful feeling (vedanā) which is experienced by a conscious being is the fruition, or result, of skillful or unskillful karma. Thus, theoretically, being brutally stabbed to death in a back alley at the end of this present life may be the fruition of a volitional act of brutally hacking to death a barbarian villager during a previous life as a Roman soldier 2000 years ago. As the purpose of this discussion is not to attempt an explanation of the exact mechanism by which karma operates, the answer to the question of how volitional mental states, now or 2000 years ago, radically condition the seemingly non-volitional, solid, physical conditions of our lives will not be attempted here.4 An important point to bear in mind, however, is that according to the general trend of Theravadin philosophy, as well as classical science, a cause and its effect must as a rule be contiguous in time and space. Thus an event many years ago, or even five seconds ago, would not directly produce a result now. Instead, the causative event begins a series of events which eventually culminate in what is called the effect, result, or fruition. And thus the fruition of karma does not occur at a distance from its cause, or causes; karma is not something which happens, then ceases being a volitional state or anything else, or else goes away somewhere and hides, and then suddenly reappears as an effect. Karma could be better described as the volitional momentum of an unenlightened mind,5 with each additional volitional act contributing to and altering that momentum. No doubt contained within the overall “stream of consciousness” would be individual volitional strands or vectors associated with individual karmic acts, or with closely related groups or types of karmic acts. At any rate, what all this boils down to, if we are to accept Buddhist doctrine, is:
     First, karma is a volitional mental state;
     Second, every pleasant or unpleasant experience we have over the course of our lives is conditioned by such volitional mental states; and
     Third, karma does not operate at a distance temporally, and so our experiences are not directly conditioned by the karmic acts of a Roman soldier 2000 years ago or of ourselves five seconds ago, but by present volitional mental states.
     Therefore, everything that happens to us pleasant or unpleasant, even if it appears to be beyond our control or understanding, is quite literally our own doing.
     Some may object that if we volitionally produce our own reality, then why do we not realize this important fact? We ought to be aware of it if it were so. The answer to that objection is, certainly we ought to, but usually we do not, mainly because of unmindfulness and ignorance. Most of the inhabitants of this world are very strongly identified with their thinking, feeling ego, which is merely, as the saying goes, the tip of the iceberg. (Or, rather, it would be more accurate to say that their thinking, feeling ego is very strongly identified with itself.) Consequently they are oblivious to mental states lying beyond its reach, which include most of the workings of karma, along with a great deal else. If we admit that we create our own dreams at night then we should also admit that we do so without fully realizing it, as our dreams seem real and largely beyond our control while we are dreaming them, and some of them contain meaningful symbolism which is beyond our superficial conscious understanding. Also, if Mrs. Eddy is correct, a spirit medium volitionally creates a fictional spirit personality, along with information psychically produced by that personality, without “consciously” being aware of the fact. For that matter, very many people are so strongly attached to and beguiled by an unrealistic self image that they are oblivious to their own so-called “conscious” waking motives. For example, one may contrive all sorts of plausible, rational justifications for performing an action, such as, say, betraying somebody, the actual motivating force of which is simply greed or fear—but greed or fear does not harmonize with the glorified self image, so it must be ignored, or denied. Such a phenomenon is referred to in psychological jargon as “cognitive dissonance.” Such things happen all the time. We humans are not nearly as awake as we think we are.
     Another possible objection is that if the events of our lives are volitionally conditioned, then why do we create so much badness for ourselves? Why do we not create a paradise to inhabit? One answer to that question is, simply, unskillfulness. Again, if people create their own dreams, then it must be admitted that many people create nightmares for themselves. This occurs in the ordinary waking state also: the majority of individuals—virtually everybody to some degree—through ignorance and foolishness mess up their lives lamentably. Furthermore, we obviously do not have complete conscious control over our volitions. To live a good life tends to require much practice, skill, and wisdom.6 At a more spiritual level, it is an unfortunate fact that we often require a hard, unpleasant knock to jolt us out of a mental rut in which we are stuck. It is an instinct in the human animal (as well as in other animals) that we cling to a habitual way of thinking and behaving, and stubbornly resist change. Even though the habitual mode may be very unpleasant at times—perhaps based largely upon guilt, worry, anger, hatred, chronic disgust, obsession with some physical defect—it has sufficed thus far to carry us through life, and so, from the perspective of animal survival instinct, it works, and as the saying goes, “Leave well enough alone”; furthermore, we feel a sense of familiarity and emotional security with our habits—in fact we identify with them, so that losing them, unpleasant though they may be, would be like losing a part of ourselves, a kind of death. Consequently, although one can teach an old dog new tricks, unteaching him his old tricks may be very difficult. However, if calamity strikes and our habitual attitude can no longer effectively cope with the situation, then our survival instinct allows us more easily to relinquish what no longer seems to work and to become much more impressionable and open to suggestion with regard to alternative attitudes. Hence the old Christian proverb, “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.” This way of radically altering habitual habit patterns, for better or worse, by deliberately cultivating an acute emotional crisis is the basis of abreactive psychotherapy, Chinese brainwashing, some forms of military training and indoctrination, Stalinist interrogation procedures, and also many religious techniques. So a spiritually oriented subconscious or superconscious mind may somehow deliberately orchestrate a disaster in order to teach a badly needed lesson to the stubborn, superficial human ape sitting on top of the proverbial iceberg. Spiritual literature abounds with cases of individuals who underwent profound awakenings as a result of such calamities as serious injuries, loss of loved ones, loss of possessions, wrecked ambitions, and severe existential crises. To add yet another trite adage to the pile, “No pain, no gain.”
     In addition to all this, karma, volitional state that it is, may be viewed as a kind of energy imbalance, or disequilibrium of consciousness; and it is simply the way of Nature for a disequilibrium to tend toward equilibrium. Just as a destructive earthquake may be seen as disequilibrium of forces in the earth’s crust shifting toward greater equilibrium, a convulsive upheaval in a person’s life may be considered as an unbalanced approach to phenomenal existence endeavoring to straighten itself out. In the words of the popular spiritual teacher Paul Lowe, “The system is self-healing”—yet we have to allow it to heal itself. It is a myth that we are unenlightened because of not trying to hard enough to become enlightened; we are unenlightened because we are constantly striving to remain that way. We cling to our unenlightenment and cherish it, consciously or subconsciously. We identify with it. Such is life. Therefore if a wise “higher self” or “superconscious mind” or merely the simple way of Nature produces an upheaval in our lives as a means to improve or regain balance somewhat, we may react with stubborn denial, resentment, or even terror.
     The number of theoretical objections to the doctrine of Karma and its Fruition, as well as the number of answers to those objections, are potentially infinite; so it may be best to stop responding to imaginary hecklers at this point (or perhaps even a few paragraphs back) and simply reiterate the main point at issue: That, according to Buddhist philosophy, karma is a volitional mental state which directly conditions the positive and negative experiences of our lives. Our lives are our own doing.
     One ramification of the Buddhist theory of Karma which receives relatively little attention is that the experiences which are conditioned by karma already lie latent within our minds before fruition occurs. For example, if we hear beautiful music, the experience of hearing that music is, very largely, the fruition of our own karmic volitions which were already present before the music was heard. This involves not only the pleasure experienced, but also the sounds themselves, and the graceful sound patterns which inspire the pleasure of the experience. It would seem that the Buddhist conception of Karma logically implies that “we ourselves” (setting aside the equally Buddhist doctrine of No Self) compose all of the music we enjoy either before we hear it or while we are hearing it; metaphysically idealist schools of Buddhist philosophy such as Yogacara would very likely agree to this, although at least some Theravada Buddhist authorities might be inclined to deny it, if not for logical reasons, then for dogmatic ones.7 At any rate, the dogma does indicate that the experiences of appreciatively hearing music is a direct result of our volitional mental states, even though we may have made no conscious effort to be present where and when the music was played. If it were not in accordance with our karma, we simply would not hear it; even if somebody desired to play the music for us, some metaphysically conditioned situation would arise which would prevent them from doing so, or else we would inevitably be so distracted that the music would make no affective or esthetic impression upon us. It would be as though we did not hear it.
     Of course, this principle would apply to much more than just music. It would no doubt also apply to the deeply inspiring profundities learned from spiritual teachers and spiritual texts. Any beneficial spiritual instruction that we receive would be ex hypothesi a result of our own volitional mental states, even if we made no conscious effort to receive it, or perhaps even initially braced ourselves vehemently against it. If it were not in accordance with our karma to hear it, then we simply would not hear it—or, we might ignore it or immediately reject it without consideration, or else grossly misunderstand it, thereby, in any case, failing really to hear it. If we do hear a beneficial spiritual teaching, and appreciate it, then the information already lay latent in the subconscious mind, in potential form, and thus, in a sense, we already knew it before we ever heard it. Much as Plato declared in his dialogue the Meno, learning would be merely a case of being reminded of what one already knows. (Many others besides Plato have also asserted this.) The trouble is that the conscious ego, the presumed “self,” does not or cannot acknowledge that the information is already somehow present within the mind. It cannot believe in or appreciate the radically mental nature of the phenomenal world. Consequently, like a devout astrologer or the proud owner of a Ouija board, the ego relies upon a sort of "gimmick" to release the information from the depths of the subconscious mind, the gimmick in this case being an encounter with a sage, book, philosophical system, or religious tradition—within the acceptably plausible context of some form of materialism or realism. In the standard human version of reality we staunchly, devoutly, and perhaps narrow-mindedly believe in an objective physical universe with an emotionally satisfying atmosphere of stability and “law and order,” and so our experiences come to us in accordance with it. Assuming that the Buddhist conception of volitional karma is true, then, presumably, if a conscious being (or perhaps just a semiconscious one) deeply believes in a version of reality much different from the standard human version, then he, she, or it will consequently exist there instead of here—say, in some “hell realm” or “heaven realm” or “other world” with its own laws and its own degree, more or less, of stability—because the world we live in is, very radically, an outward reflection of our own mental states.
     Our volitional conditioning of the world we experience is evident even at a gross, materialistic level; for example it is obvious that our conscious choices greatly determine where we live, how we make a living, our intimate relationships, our social standing, and much else besides; and even at a more subtle and less clearly conscious level it is acknowledged that people who worry about sickness are more likely to get sick (partly because their worry and tension weaken their immune system and make them more accident-prone), that people who are afraid of being mugged are more likely to be mugged (partly because an experienced mugger perceives their fear and judges them to be an easy prey), and so on. But if the doctrine or hypothesis of Karma and its Fruition is correct, then the “material world” becomes much more profoundly psychological. This would not necessarily imply a metaphysic of subjective idealism, however, but would land Theravada Buddhist philosophy, and does land it, in an apparent paradox, the problem being stated by Arthur Schopenhauer in his essay “On the Apparent Design in the Fate of the Individual” as follows:
It may be, however, that the paradox is more apparent than real, especially if one considers the possibility that the Universe (not merely the small ‘u’ astronomical universe but all such universes and everything else besides) is Absolutely Infinite and contains all possibilities, comprehensible and otherwise.
     Setting aside the metaphysical problem of an apparently deterministic universe somehow perfectly accommodating and dovetailing everybody’s karma, we return to the issue of gimmicks employed by fortunetellers, astrologers, channelers, and spiritual disciples with little faith in their own inner knowledge, for the purpose of indirectly accessing this knowledge in some way acceptable to the belief system of their superficial conscious ego. Assuming that the knowledge already lies latent, then presumably, potentially at least, it could be accessed directly, without the gimmick—if the belief system were to be modified or somehow transcended. This would probably require, first, greater open-mindedness about the very possibility of direct access; and second, less vehement identification with the superficial conscious ego. Unfortunately this is much easier said than done, as of course it is human nature to identify with one’s symbolic belief systems and stubbornly to resist fundamental change in them, even change for the better. So if this particular change for the better is to take place, it will probably happen very gradually, perhaps with much effort,9 or else through some violent upheaval apparently beyond one’s conscious control.
     Again, assuming that all affective experience (positive or negative) is directly caused by our own subconscious volitions, as implied by Buddhist philosophical doctrine, and further assuming the possibility of bypassing the seemingly outward fruition of karma by directly gaining access to “embryonic” experiences and useful information lying latent in the subconscious mind, then still there would be one shortcoming which would greatly limit the benefit to be had from it—that, is, that we would still be unable to know or experience anything not in accordance with our karma. For example, if one simply does not have the karmic potential to be exposed to the Vedanta philosophy, then no amount of delving and dredging in the subconscious mind will discover any Upanishads there. However, this limitation applies only to sensory and perceptual experience—to what is worldly, or “samsaric.” There is another kind of possible direct access which ultimately is of much greater value, and which may be said to be absolutely unlimited: namely, access to Reality, which is the essence of spiritual enlightenment. The possibility of direct access to Ultimate Truth is virtually self-evident since, after all, how far away can reality be? It is always right here, right now. We are soaking in it. The philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that no effort, including scientific investigation, could possibly take one even one step closer to a genuine knowledge of anything as it really is, of an uninterpreted, nonsymbolic “thing in itself”; but he overlooked one rather obvious exception, which is the thing in itself of consciousness itself. So long as we are at all conscious, we have direct access to the essence of pure consciousness, known to the Hindus as Brahman, to some Christians, including the Christian Scientists, as God, and to a few Buddhists at least, the element of Nirvana. Consider the following verses from the Kevaṭṭa Sutta of the Dīgha Nikāya (D.11), which are evidently a reference to Nirvana:

               viññāṇaṁ anidassanaṁ, anantaṁ sabbatopabhaṁ;
               ettha āpo ca pathavī, tejo vāyo na gādhati;

               ettha dīghañca rassañca, aṇuṁ thūlaṁ subhāsubhaṁ;
               ettha nāmañca rūpañca, asesaṁ uparujjhati;
               viññāṇassa nirodhena, etthetaṁ uparujjhati.

               “Consciousness unmanifest, infinite, shining all around;
               Here water and earth, fire and wind gain no foothold;

               “Here long and short, small and large, pleasant and unpleasant;
               Here name and form, without remainder, are completely stopped;
               By the cessation of consciousness, this is completely stopped here.”10

Constant access, potential at least, to Nirvana is logically implied by Buddhist doctrine, as it declares this state to be absolutely unconditioned and without beginning or end in any direction. If Nirvana were not right here, right now, then that would be a limitation, and thus a condition, since any limitation presumably must have a cause or reason; but Nirvana is an unconditioned state and has no limitations. If it is in the mind of an enlightened being, then it is also in the mind of a violent sociopath, and in the mind of a chicken. Any purely unconditioned, formless state can have no boundaries. This omnipresence, immanence, and immediate accessibility of Nirvana is evidently one reason why traditional yogic practices aiming at enlightenment, including Buddhist mindfulness practice, lay so much emphasis on clear awareness of what is right here at the present moment. If Nirvana is in some better future state, it is also here. The trouble is, again, that we (or, rather, our conscious egos) obstinately cling to perceptual belief systems, and are so beguiled and distracted by their symbolic content and context that we (our conscious egos) remain unaware of the formless essence of consciousness which underlies and pervades all of it—and choose to remain unaware. Thus it should be no surprise that, as historical evidence suggests, spiritually advanced beings tend to have realized the Truth as a result of renunciation of worldliness and deep meditative/contemplative practice inspired by chronic misery, or else a psychological cataclysm induced by acute misery. Misery, or rather a reaction to it, appears to be one of the most effective gimmicks for turning one’s awareness towards wisdom.
     Even so, ultimately, full enlightenment cannot really be attained through any gimmick, since Nirvana is not karmic or perceptual and is not the result of any cause. So enlightenment must “occur,” if it can be said to occur at all, through direct, immediate realization of the fact that Nibbāna, or whatever one chooses to call it, has always been present, and necessarily always will be present. It occurs by bypassing or transcending all gimmicks, including the greatest of all gimmicks called Worldly Existence, alias Samsara. Therefore the highest spirituality bypasses or transcends such worldly phenomena as religious dogmas, philosophical doctrines, moral codes, inspired scriptures, and even wise teachers—not to mention candles and incense, bells and gongs, statues and temples, bowing and chanting. The constantly recurring trouble is, of course, that it is human nature to rely on gimmicks, to be attached to them, to consider them necessary, and to some degree even to identify with them. Perhaps there is nothing for it but simply to muddle along as best we can, using a gimmick now and then, while somehow maintaining, in the face of the world, a sincere and courageous desire to seek the Truth.


     In Theravada Buddhist literature there is some ambiguity with regard to the exact number of contemplative states, or jhanas, included in the system. In some Pali texts, including some unquestionably very ancient ones, contemplation and contemplators (jhāyī) are mentioned without any specified number of contemplative states. However, it is clear that from very early on the number of these states officially has been four. Thus, for example, in the Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta, which is practically the Bible for the modern insight meditation movement, Right concentration, sammāsamādhi, is defined as The Four Jhanas. It is not the purpose of this discussion to explain the essential nature of Buddhist jhanic states, which is just as well since the exact nature of these states is somewhat controversial nowadays; but the four jhanas may be briefly and generally described, more or less in accordance with standardized, stock descriptions found in the Pali texts, as follows: First jhana, the least advanced of the four stages, is a meditative state involving conceptual thought (or “thought and reflection”--vitakka- vicāra) as well as sensitivity to mental and physical pleasure and displeasure. In second jhana thought has ceased, temporarily, but the sensitivity to mental and physical pleasure and displeasure remains. In third jhana thought as well as mental pleasure and displeasure have ceased, but a sensitivity to physical pleasure and displeasure remains; and in the stock description of third jhana mindful awareness (sati) comes to be emphasized. Fourth jhana, the most exalted of the series, is declared to be “purity of mindfulness” (satipārisuddhi), and in it thought and mental/physical pleasure/displeasure have all ceased. Some Pali texts appear to imply that fourth jhana was considered by many, at least, to be the best if not only “jumping off point” to Nirvana. To give just one example, according to the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta (D. 16) Gotama Buddha himself passed into final Nirvana, at his death, from fourth jhana.
     The later Abhidhamma commentarial tradition added a fifth jhana, or rather a first-and-a-halfth one, between first and second by supposing a meditative state in which “thought” but not “reflection” has ceased. This addition to the system, however, never really caught on, except perhaps among Abhidhamma scholars, and is usually ignored.
     Yet there is another addition to the system which is more highly regarded and also apparently rather earlier, being mentioned repeatedly in the Pali suttas themselves. This addition is called formless contemplation, or arūpajjhāna, and consists of the following states, or “spheres,” in ascending order of development: the sphere of infinite space (ākāsānañcāyatana), the sphere of infinite consciousness (viññāṇānañcāyatana), the sphere of nothingness (ākiñcaññāyatana), and the sphere of neither perception nor nonperception (nevasaññānāsaññāyatana). Although these postulated contemplative states were incorporated into orthodox Buddhist doctrine relatively early, they apparently were not incorporated as early as “The Four Jhanas”; otherwise, presumably, the traditional number would have been eight, not four. Also, there are some Pali suttas which are considered by western academic types to be relatively very early, or doctrinally very conservative, in which a mention of the formless contemplations is conspicuously lacking. For example, in the cardinal Pali text the Samaññaphala Sutta (D.2) the Buddha describes the fruits of the contemplative life in ascending order of exaltation, yet after explaining fourth jhana he begins a description of certain psychic powers which may result from contemplation, completely omitting any specific mention of formless jhanas. A standard explanation is that the formless jhanas are a kind of annex to fourth jhana, being formless variations of it; but this explanation is not well supported by the suttas themselves, which generally list the formless spheres, without calling them “jhana,” after The Four Jhanas (when they list them at all). In the previously mentioned scene of the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta describing the death of the Buddha, it is said that immediately before his final Nirvana he entered the four jhanas in succession, then the four formless spheres in succession, then another, even more ethereal state called “cessation of perception and feeling” (saññāvedayitanirodha)11 after which he then descended stage by stage back down to first jhana, and then reascended to fourth, from which he entered Nirvana. This seemingly unnecessary tour through a wide spectrum of deep contemplative states immediately prior to his death may be hypothetically accounted for by the idea that originally there were only The Four Jhanas, and that the Buddha was believed to have entered Nirvana from the highest one, a traditional “jumping off point”; but later, after Buddhist philosophy had become more elaborated and systematized and higher contemplative states had been postulated, some ancient scholastic or group of scholastics saw fit to interpolate the expanded system into the text in order to make it more “complete.” However, they did not attempt to alter the tradition that the Buddha died in fourth jhana, possibly because that tradition was too well-known to be altered, so it was found necessary for him to return from the higher states in order to pass away in accordance with the original, or at least earlier, story.
     Of course, traditionalists may insist that the Pali suttas are not corrupt at all, and contain no interpolations or alterations, and so forth; but, though this is not logically impossible, they cannot demonstratively prove this, and are simply (or complicatedly) guessing, very likely for religious, emotional reasons—it gives them a feeling of security and comfort to believe it, so they believe it. Now, everybody has to make guesses in life; and if a Buddhist wishes to guess, or hypothesize, that the Pali texts, or certain Pali texts, are fully reliable, then he or she certainly has that option, and it may be a very convenient guess or hypothesis for a Buddhist to work with. But if one makes a guess, then certainly one should know that one is guessing. To formulate or accept a guess or hypothesis that one cannot prove and cannot really know, and yet vehemently to insist that it is true, is misguided at best and at worst, insane. Such is dogmatism. It is a kind of conceptual idolatry; and it is rather unlikely that Gotama Buddha ever intended his method of Dhamma to be that way. So, for the sake of open-mindedness, and as an exercise in thought, we may consider the question of why or how, hypothetically, the formless contemplations became part of the elaborated, developed system of Theravada Buddhist ethical philosophy. There are three obvious possibilities which will be considered in turn.
     First, there can be little doubt that in ancient and medieval India there was a great passion for intellectual elaboration and systematization of philosophical/religious systems, multiplying the invisible and at the same time dividing everything down into a minimum number of postulated elemental states and analyzing to death all their possible interactions. This vogue for theoretical elaboration gave rise to the various Abhidharma schools of early Buddhism as well as much of the mass of commentarial, subcommentarial, and sub-subcommentarial literature of ancient and medieval times. It was not restricted to Buddhism, but prevailed in almost all schools of Indian philosophy, with some schools being predominantly based upon it. Evidence of this kind of thinking can be found, by those who are willing to look for it, in the Pali suttas; and, assuming for the sake of argument that the early Buddhist scriptural traditions have not been immune to change and developed gradually, it appears plausible, at least, that the old Indian passion for gratuitous elaboration of system was a key factor in the genesis of orthodox contemplative states higher than fourth jhana. But it was probably not the only factor.
     A second possibility is that the formless contemplations were devised as a propagandistic means of belittling non-Buddhist meditative systems. Unfortunately, caustic disparagement of non-Buddhist philosophers, philosophies, and religions is rather common in the Pali texts, being particularly noticeable, for instance, in the Majjhima Nikāya. A typical example is the Buddhist treatment of the “six heretical teachers,”12 as they are sometimes called, who reputedly were contemporaries of Gotama Buddha, with some of them possibly being more renowned and more respected in the Buddha’s time than the Buddha himself. They are generally portrayed in the texts as a group of foolish, bungling charlatans, rather like an ancient Indian version of the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, plus Gilligan, with no fewer than two of them, according to Buddhist tradition, vomiting hot blood and dying for no better reason than that one or two of their disciples apostatized and converted to Buddhism. Another prime example of sectarian propagandism is the canonical Buddhist treatment of Indra and Brahma, two of the chief deities of the Brahmanistic pantheon. Both of them allegedly converted to Buddhism, with Indra coming to favor the name Sakka and becoming a Buddhist saint, but with Brahma, literally the Brahmanistic personification of Ultimate Reality, occasionally backsliding into believing the religion named after him. In at least one sutta13 these two deities stand watch before the entrance of the Buddha’s private chamber and recite devotional panegyrics in his honor, presumably intending that he is their superior. In the traditional account of the Buddha’s enlightenment, found in various Pali texts, when the Buddha is hesitant to begin teaching Dhamma, suspecting that nobody would be able to understand or appreciate it, the Great Brahma descends to earth and humbly urges him to promulgate a philosophy that will eventually debunk and deride the worship of him, Brahma. And as if that were not enough, the Buddhists placed Brahma—again, the very personification of Ultimate Reality—in a relatively mediocre heaven realm, postulating a whole slew of heaven realms higher than it, with corresponding contemplative states.14 It may be fair to mention that the early Buddhists received their karmuppance when they were in turn belittled and derided as Hinayana (“The Deficient Vehicle”) by the later Mahayanists. At any rate, the main point of all this is not to denigrate genuine Dhamma, but to suggest that not everything to be found in the texts is genuine Dhamma, and then to point out that it is not inconceivable that early Buddhist systematizers added the formless spheres to the four already established jhanas as a way of belittling the theories or interpretations of enlightenment or Ultimate Reality endorsed by rival, non-Buddhist philosophical systems. Thus they could say, “There, you see, they are not enlightened at all. What they are describing and calling ‘The Highest Principle’ is merely a sub-Nirvanic contemplative state. We Buddhists do better than that.” There is some support for this interpretation in the fact that at least two of the formless spheres, the sphere of infinite consciousness and the sphere of neither perception nor nonperception, correspond fairly well with attempted descriptions of The Highest Principle given in the Upanidhsads. The sphere of nothingness also could reflect such a well-known Upanishadic dictum as neti, neti (“not this, not that”), or perhaps even the teachings of philosophical nihilists.
     However, the third possibility to be considered for the genesis of arūpajjhāna is more intriguing, and also rather less blameworthy if it were true. It is theoretically possible that the four formless contemplations were added to orthodox doctrine as a means of integrating older, established yet superseded doctrines (especially concerning the nature of enlightenment) into a newer, developed and standardized system of theory. There can be no reasonable doubt that Buddhism, like Christianity, underwent a rapid, virus-like mutation during its first few hundred years of existence. Even those who prefer to believe that Theravada represents the pure, pristine, and infallible teachings of Gotama Buddha must realistically admit that even before the advent of Mahayana about 2000 years ago early Buddhism had already split up into many sects, mainly because of differences in philosophical theory. It appears very likely that very early Buddhism mushroomed with philosophical and religious theories, largely due to the previously mentioned Indian passion for intellectual elaboration, with some of these ideas eventually falling by the wayside, some of them filling perceived gaps in the system, some attempting to explain seeming discrepancies in older doctrines, and some perhaps even supplanting older doctrines. Unresolvable differences of opinion amongst teachers within a school often enough resulted in schism, but resolvable differences presumably resulted occasionally in compromise solutions. Thus, some old interpretations of Dhamma, especially of enlightenment, were eventually rejected as orthodox dogma settled down into an organized, standardize body of doctrine, yet a few of them were preserved in old verses which were too well-known and too well-venerated to be edited out of the Canon. So, as a kind of compromise, these few interpretations of enlightenment were reinterpreted as very high contemplative states, that is, as formless spheres. Going with this hypothesis, vestiges of archaic, outmoded interpretations of Dhamma which gave rise to arūpajjhāna may possibly be identified in the Pali suttas.
     Beginning with the highest of the four, the sphere of neither perception nor nonperception may have its origin in a paradoxical verse of the Kalahavivāda Sutta (Discourse on Quarrels and Contentions) of the Sutta Nipāta. This text is part of the Aṭṭhakavagga, a chapter of the Sutta Nipāta which was evidently an independent work, which is linguistically and doctrinally very archaic, and which was much better known and more influential among Buddhists in ancient times than it is today. The verse (v.13 of the sutta) is as follows:

               na saññasaññī na visasaññasaññī,
               nopi asaññī na vibhūtasaññī;
               evaṁ sametassa vibhoti rūpaṁ,
               saññānidānā hi papañcasaṅkhā.

               "He has no perception of perception; he has no perception of nonperception;
               He is not without perception; he has no perception of 'void';
               For one who has attained thus form becomes void,
               For founded in perception is differentiating designation."

Although the commentarial literature declares that the verse above is describing an unenlightened meditative state, it is clear from its context with the verses which immediately follow it that it is in fact attempting to describe the "highest purity of spirit"---the mentality of enlightenment. But, this interpretation of enlightenment came to be rejected and obsolete, or else it was simply too obscure to be understood, and so, according to the hypothesis, the idea was relegated to the sphere of formless jhana. Strangely, the verse itself (not the idea) was not interpreted by later commentators as describing the sphere of neither perception nor nonperception but rather, apparently, a split-momentary transitional state between fourth jhana and the sphere of infinite space wherein the mind is no longer contemplating form, but is not yet contemplating formlessness either---which, considering the context of the verse, makes little if any obvious sense.
     For the state next highest on the scale, the sphere of nothingness, one possible candidate for the honor of proto-Theravadin ancestor is the second verse of the Upasīvamaṇavapucchā (Questions of the Brahmin Student Upasīva), found in the Pārāyanavagga of the Sutta Nipāta. The Pārāyanavagga, like the Aṭṭhakavagga, was apparently an independent work before its incorporation into the Sutta Nipāta, bears signs of greater antiquity than most Pali texts, and was considered more important by ancient Buddhists than by modern ones. The verse in question is as follows:

               ākiñcaññaṁ pekkhamāno satimā,
               natthīti nissāya tarassu oghaṁ;
               kāme pahāya virato kathāhi,
               taṇhakkhayaṁ nattamahābhipassa.

               “Beholding nothingness, possessing mindfulness,
               Relying upon “It is not,” (or, ‘There is nothing’), cross over the flood;
               Having abandoned sensuality, refraining from controversies,
               Look night and day to the destruction of craving.”

The verse is not so much attempting to describe Nirvana as a means to it, perhaps the cultivation of an approximation of an enlightened state of mind; and although orthodox commentary declares “beholding nothingness” and “It is not” to be referring to the sphere of nothingness, the text seems to be implying that one should “behold nothingness” at all times, not only when sitting in deep absorption, much as Mahayana Buddhists are instructed to cultivate an awareness of the voidness of all things, and as, indeed, the Mogharājāmāṇavapucchā of the Pārāyanavagga itself encourages with its injunction “Look upon the world as void, Mogharāja, always being mindful” (suññato lokaṁ avekkhassu / mogharāja sadā sato). Thus, according to the hypothesis, the commentarial interpretation would be an anachronistic invention of sorts, reflecting an attempt to accommodate a well-known but outmoded teaching of primitive Buddhism in the developed orthodox system by simply changing its meaning, no doubt with good intentions.
     The sphere of infinite consciousness has an obvious counterpart among famous old Pali verses describing the Ultimate, namely the verses beginning, “Consciousness unmanifest, infinite, shining all around” (viññāṇaṁ anidassanaṁ, anantaṁ sabbatopabhaṁ) quoted at the end of the Kevaṭṭa Sutta (D.11).15 Somewhat ironically, the sutta itself is one of the previously mentioned propagandist texts, in which the Great Brahma, chief deity of the Brahmanistic pantheon and personification of Ultimate Reality, appears to backslide from Buddhism to some degree and is made a fool of; yet the quoted verses, which almost certainly attempt to describe Nirvana, and which are endorsed by the Buddha himself, represent an interpretation of The Highest Principle that more closely follows Brahmanism than orthodox Theravada, the Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism often describing Ultimate Reality, or Brahman, as infinite, formless consciousness, while the Theravadin Abhidhamma tradition asserts that consciousness and Nirvana are absolutely, completely different. Even the commentary is constrained to affirm that the verses refer to Nirvana, no doubt in part because the lines about the four elements gaining no foothold, “long and short, small and large,” and so forth are found elsewhere in the suttas as a more or less stereotyped pattern form poetically eulogizing the Highest State.16 It is quite possible that these controversial verses are older and more “primitive” than the Kevaṭṭa Sutta as a whole; yet even the sutta as it stands could hardly be called orthodox Theravada, considering the Buddha’s endorsement of Nirvana as infinite consciousness (even though, as mentioned elsewhere, an extra line was apparently added at the end of the verses as an attempt to rectify their orientation). It would seem that the verses (especially the first line and excepting the last one) represent an evolutionary dead end in Buddhist doctrine which arose during the explosive, viruslike mutation of early Buddhist philosophy, or may even have been original, but was outcompeted, for whatever reasons, by another interpretation of Nirvana which found its place in the settled, streamlined, standardized dogma of later centuries.17 Going with the hypothesis, then, in very early Buddhism there were a significant number of Buddhists who favored the idea of Nirvana as formless, infinite consciousness; but when, as the authoritative doctrine of proto-Theravada developed, the idea fell from grace, it was, by one means or another, converted into an advanced, formless sphere, possibly because it is easier to modify a belief than to abolish it altogether; and the notorious verses in the Kevaṭṭa Sutta which endorse the rejected old theory were left behind as an otherwise almost inexplicable literary fossil. Later editors and commentators, probably suspecting nothing of all this, did their best to cope with the situation and came up with their own rationalizations after the fact.
     As for the remaining formless sphere, it is unlikely that there is or ever was a canonical Buddhist text identifying Nirvana with infinite space; although some Buddhist literature, especially Zen literature like the classic Hsin Hsin Ming (“On Believing in Mind”), declares the Perfect Way to be “like unto vast space.” Consequently, it may be hypothesized that this sphere was originally inspired by a metaphor, possibly a misunderstood one, or else it was postulated as a sort of logical prerequisite to the sphere of infinite consciousness, assuming that there must be infinite space for the consciousness to pervade.
     A devout Theravadin could easily reply to all this that adept Buddhist meditators have actually attained these formless jhanas, which fact plainly demonstrates that the formless spheres really do exist, and thus refutes the whole hypothesis that they are merely artifacts of specious early Buddhist systematology. It certainly is true that some Buddhist mediators sincerely believe themselves to have attained arūpajjhāna; but by the same token some of these same meditators, following essentially the same methods, also sincerely believe themselves to have remembered former lives or incarnations which are historically inaccurate, mythological, or literally fabulous—for instance a past life as a dragon, or an elephant with approximately human intelligence who worshipped Buddhist pagodas. It is a largely ignored yet nevertheless serious problem in Theravadin spiritual practice that jhana is very frequently confounded with self-hypnosis, and this apparently has been the case for a very long time. (Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why some Buddhist meditation teachers warn their students not to practice jhana, despite the plain fact that the practice of jhana is strongly encouraged by the Buddha himself in the Pali texts.) Subjects in a deep hypnotic state generally experience what they believe they ought to experience, whether it is the sphere of infinite space, a fabulous past life, the disintegration of the world into subatomic particles, a communication from a superhuman being, or a vision of the Virgin Mary, and these experiences may be extremely vivid and convincing, not to say satisfying. This is true without even considering the more serious mental aberrations which may arise as a result of excessive or misguided yogic practice. It is simple human nature to be unsophisticated and easily beguiled with regard to abstractions, especially emotionally charged subjective ones.
     This type of subjective self-beguilement occurs not only among those who attempt to practice jhana, but among some practitioners of so-called insight or vipassana meditation also. For example, some vipassana instructors assert that as a meditator develops insight he/she will see his/her own mind and mental states appearing and disappearing, at a rate of more than a trillion times per second, in accordance with the doctrines of orthodox Abhidhamma philosophy. There are a number of technical problems with this, including the rather obvious one, which nobody seems to notice, that one could not possibly see the disappearance of one’s own mind for the plain reason that the seeing, itself, would also disappear. One cannot know the nonexistence of one’s own mind because the knowing, itself, would be nonexistent. In short, one cannot see gaps in one’s own consciousness. Presumably the best that could be managed would be an awareness of a fluctuation between dimmer and brighter consciousness, a kind of flickering, but appearance and disappearance one could not see. Consciousness would necessarily be experienced as a continuum. If a dogmatic Theravadin considers this problem at all, he might attempt to resolve it by resorting to a somewhat naive analogy: when sleepers awaken from a deep sleep, they are aware of having been unconscious, and of the passage of time during that unconsciousness. But this is because, first, they can see objective evidence of the passage of time, as by looking at a clock, which they could not do after one 17-trillionth of an eyeblink; and second, even when they were sound asleep they were not entirely unconscious. If one were entirely unconscious, then one could not be awakened. One would not hear the alarm clock; one would not feel oneself being violently shaken. If one were truly unconscious, then one would be in a coma, not asleep, and would be oblivious of any subjective gap from one moment of consciousness to the next. But, some teachers and traditions assert that one must see the appearance and disappearance of the mind, so faithful meditators dutifully see it, even though it is logically impossible, and afterwards feel very happy and satisfied about this achievement. The moral of the story is that great caution should be exercised in the interpretation of subjective meditative states, for things are not always as they seem. Perhaps the safest course, as well as the most conducive to non-delusion (also known as “wisdom”), is to attribute no particular significance to them at all, not to bother with naming them or categorizing hem, and “to cultivate the signless.”
     The foregoing discussion certainly does not disprove, or even try to disprove, the possibility that Gotama Buddha taught the formless contemplations to his disciples, or, for that matter, that he himself was taught them by his teachers before his enlightenment, as tradition asserts, and thus that they are pre-Buddhistic in origin. On the other hand, a Buddhist with a faith-based religious temperament—or anybody else—cannot even begin really to prove that the Buddha (or his early teachers) did teach them. From a logical point of view the issue is problematic, and cannot be known with certainty one way or the other, although of course one may vehemently believe whatever one likes. One of the purposes of this discussion of arūpajjhāna has been to foster some philosophical detachment from dogma; and it does appear plausible, at least, that the conception of arūpajjhāna is an anachronism somewhat awkwardly interpolated into an earlier, but still developing system of Buddhist doctrine. However, entrenched dogmatic types need not be concerned with this, as it is a characteristic of dogmatism to ignore or reject, if necessary, even obvious facts, let alone hypothetical possibilities, and all, all in the name of Truth. Such is human nature.
     May all in want of wisdom find it, and may all beings be well and peaceful.
  1. The most famous example of this sort of phenomenon 
  2. With due respect to Mrs. Eddy, she declared all hypnotism and Spiritualism to be bad and wrong, presumably because she was anxious to dissociate her own system of Christian Science from the ruck of apparently similar systems which abounded during the latter half of the 19th century. No doubt she had been accused by many of being a psychic or hypnotist, and she did not like it.
  3. A. VI. 63 
  4. Although it may as well be mentioned that the Mahayana Buddhists who declare physical matter to be merely an illusion have a much easier time of answering that question than the quasi-materialistic Theravadins do.
  5. According to Buddhist doctrine, an enlightened mind generates no karma, and so presumably would have, or at least generate, no momentum.
  6. In fact the much-used Pali word kusala, which in the context of Buddhist ethics is often translated as “wholesome” or “good,” literally means skillful, and its opposite akusala (“unwholesome,” “bad”) means unskillful. 
  7. For example, the orthodox Abhidhamma philosophy of Theravada asserts that human mentality is purely linear with no parallel processing whatsoever, and absolutely denies the existence of any subconscious mind with the exception of a kind of unvarying “test pattern” called bhavaṅga which spontaneously arises whenever the mind is otherwise unoccupied. How karma or latent tendencies can be retained by an individual over time appears to be problematic in this system. 
  8. Quoted in C.G. Jung’s Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle (Princeton 1973), translated by R.F.C. Hull. 
  9. Such effort may involve some type of mindfulness meditation, and should also include some serious consideration of ideas which challenge one’s own point of view—possibly like this discussion, for example. 
  10. The very first line, “viññāṇaṁ...sabbatopabhaṁ,” is also found at M.49. With regard to the very last line, G.C. Pande, in his monumental work Studies in the Origins of Buddhism (Motilal Banarsidass 1983), points out that it “is not only unnecessary but flatly contradicts what precedes,” and very plausibly adds, “The best explanation seems to be that the last line is a corrective appendix added by one for whom viññāṇa had a purely phenomenal meaning.” In other words it was apparently an attempt to make the preceding lines appear more in accordance with established tradition. For further discussion of these verses, see the Appendix. 
  11. Which, however, is never officially referred to as “jhana.” Regardless of the commentarial interpretation, it is apparently the same state referred to as “the signless concentration of mind” (animittacetosamādhi) which occurs at the same point in the series of contemplative states in the Culasuññata Sutta (M.121), “sign” here plausibly being synonymous with “perception and feeling.”
  12. Pūraṇa Kassapa, Makkhali Gosāla, Ajita Kesakambalî, Pakhuda Kaccāyana, Sañjaya Belaṭṭhiputta, and Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta (alias Mahāvīra, the traditional founder of Jainism).
  13. CF. S.I.xi.17.
  14. For a more thorough and detailed account of this type of early Buddhist scriptural propagandizing, the reader is referred to Richard Gombrich’s How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings (Athlone 1996).
  15. The complete passage as found in the sutta is given above.
  16. One of the most well-known examples of this sort of description is found at the end of Bāhiya Sutta of the Udāna (Ud. 1. 10)
  17. It was, however, revived by certain Mahayanist schools, or preserved by at least one proto-Mahayanist one, presumably of the Mahasanghika branch of early Buddhism.
        (---completed on February 7, 2011, at Wun Bo Wildlife Refuge Monastery, Butalin Township, upper Burma, by Paññobhāsa Bhikkhu)

All the events in a man’s life would accordingly stand in two fundamentally different kinds of connection: firstly, in the objective, casual connections of the natural process; secondly, in a subjective connection which exists only in relation to the individual who experiences it, and which is thus as subjective as his own dreams….That both kinds of connection exist simultaneously, and the selfsame event, although a link in two totally different chains, nevertheless falls into place in both, so that the fate of one individual invariably fits the fate of the other, and each is the hero of his own drama while simultaneously figuring in a drama foreign to him—this is something that surpasses our powers of comprehension, and can only be conceived by virtue of the most wonderful pre-established harmony.8

āgantukehi upakkilesehi upakkiliṭṭhaṁ. taṁ assutavā puthujjano yathābhūtaṁ nappanājāti. tasmā assutavato puthujjanassa cittabhāvanā natthīti vadāmīti. 

“This mind, monks, is shining forth, but it is defiled by visiting (i.e. extraneous) defilements. The unlearned common person does not understand this as it really is. Therefore I say there is no mental development for the unlearned common person.” (—A.I.VI.I)

Leave a Comment


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *