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Dispelling the Myth of Access Concentration (upacara-samadhi)

April 17, 2005

By the contemplative recluse monk Sotapanna Jhanananda (Jeffrey S, Brooks)

(copyright 2005 all rights reserved)

The concept of "access concentration" (upacara-samadhi) is presented in both the Buddhist Commentaries and in the Abhidhamma it however does not appear in the Discourse of the Buddha. Because the concept of access concentration first appears in the Abhidhamma we can say the idea arrived very early in Buddhist doctrine, but since this concept is absent from the Discourses of the Buddha we can say it was most probably not part of the Buddha's original discourse.  And, due to this early arrival it is present in all three vehicles of Buddhism.  The question is, however, is access concentration a relevant concept, or does it represent religious doctrine and myth that only serves to obfuscate the experience of successful meditation (samma-samadhi)?

The Abhidhamma has been generally agreed upon by most scholars of Buddhism as a later addition to the Buddhist Canon. The Buddhist scholar, Dr. K. Jamanadas in his article Original Buddhism And Brahminic Interference suggests the Abhidhamma may have been heavily influenced by Brahmin converts, who may have had an agenda in distancing the Dhamma from the masses, who were not of the Brahman cast.  While this seems like a reasonable suggestion, one should ask why Brahmins even converted to Buddhism?, In his article Dr. K. Jamanadas makes some rather interesting points about the Brahminization of Buddhism and he makes some rather intriguing suggestions that are relevant to this subject, however, he does not suggest the reason why Brahmin caste members were embracing Buddhism to begin with. This author would like to suggest that if we consider there were at least two episodes in Indian history when Royal patronage fell to Buddhists, then we might find we have a "smoking gun" to reveal an answer to why Brahman cast members converted to Buddhism, it was for royal patronage.

The most significant periods of royal patronage for Buddhism came during the reigns of King Ashoka and a Greek King from what is now Afghanistan, who was called Melinda. Ashoka lived and reigned during the 3rd century BCE and Melinda ruled during the 1st century BCE.  It was at these time periods that the early canon of Buddhism was taking form and when the Abhidhamma must have been written.

In spite of the dominance that the concept access concentration has over the various vehicles of Buddhism, in the Discourse of the Buddha Sidharta Gotama only spoke of 8 stages of meditative absorption, and he did not mention "access concentration" (upacara-samadhi).  The first 4 stages of meditative absorption he called "jhana;" the second series of four states of absorption he tended to refer to by their descriptions, however, they have come to be called the non-material attainments or "arupa-jhanas" in Pali.

A few centuries after Sidharta Gotama Patañjali wrote one of the early commentaries on the Vedas it was called the "Yoga Sutras." In the Yoga Sutras Patañjali discussed two basic stages of absorption, he called them "samprajana-samadhi" and "asamprajata-samadhi." Samprajana-samadhi is an absorption state in which there is still "object-consciousness" (rupa-chitta) or what we would call sensory phenomena.  Thus it seems the Buddha's concept of the materiel absorptions (rupa-jhanas) is in concert with the Sanskrit term "samprajana-samadhi."  And, in both of these ways of expressing material or object awareness, in which both Sidharta Gotama and Patañjali used the Sanskrit term "rupa," it seems reasonable to conclude that both of these ancient mystics believed there was a stage of absorption in which there was still some awareness of the physical senses.

Patañjali called the non-material absorption state "asamprajata-samadhi," because it is a subjective state where there is no longer any object-consciousness, or awareness of the material senses, which is called "rupa" in both Sanskrit and Pali.  Sidharta Gotama did not invoke the term "jhana" with respect to the "non-material attainment, however, in the Abhidhamma and the commentaries they are called "arupa-jhana" which simply means "non-material absorption."

On the surface it may seem that Sidharta Gotama was aware of 6 more stages of absorption than was Patañjali . However, the difference between Sidharta Gotama's discourses on absorption seems to be only in revealing subtle shades of distinction in the two major categories of absorption. It is possible these shades of distinction Patañjali did not think were important to make.

There seems to be some doubt about the period in which Patañjali lived, however, it is generally accepted that he came after Sidharta Gotama.  This author would like to suggest that we could determine an end date for the likelihood of Patañjali 's life by the absence of the concept of access concentration from his discourses.  We can also suggest that the Abhidhamma most probably came after Patañjali as well for the same absence of the concept of access concentration.

In contrast to the Buddha's and Patañjali 's method of articulating two major divisions of absorption, which were respectively: "rupa" and "arupa-jhana;" and "samprajana" and "asamprajata-samadhi;" we find in the Buddhist commentaries three major divisions of absorption (Samadhi): 1. "upacara Samadhi" or access concentration; 2. "Rupa-jhana" or material absorption; and "Arupa-jhana" or immaterial absorption.

From the Discourses of the Buddha we find all of the noteworthy disciples developed all 8 stages of absorption (Samadhi). The sutta pitaka also indicates they arrived at other fruits (phala) of the contemplative life, such as opening the divine eye (clairvoyance) and the ability to see past lives before attaining the complete destruction of the "taints" of the aggregates of cognitions, which produces full enlightenment (nibbana).

In addition to the concept of access concentration it is in the commentary literature where we also see the development of the idea of a "dry insight path." It is in the commentary where "access concentration" (upacara-samadhi) is suggested to be sufficient for full enlightenment, and not in the suttas.  This discrepancy between the Buddha's Discourse and the commentaries seems rather troubling.

As the western people mature into absorbing a contemplative life there seems to be a growing awareness that there is more to meditation than has been presented to us through the various contemplative schools.  Those schools have predominantly come from Asia.  Some of those schools are: in the Hindu model primarily represented by TM and Sat Mat; the many Buddhist models are represented by the various vipassana schools originating either in U Ba Khin or Mahasi Sawyado and their western counter parts in the various Insight forms; there are a number of Zen schools observing shiken taza and other styles; and the various ritual forms of Tibetan Buddhism.

While every school of Buddhism certainly references the Discourses of the Buddha, we tend to find as we penetrate the teaching of the various schools of Buddhism that they clearly focus more so upon their school's commentarial literature, which very often relies more heavily upon the Abhidhamma and the Visuddhimagga, than upon the original Discourses of the Buddha.

The characteristic difference between the commentaries and the Discourses (Sutta Pitaka) is a tendency of the commentaries to look at the four lower absorptions (rupa-jhanas) as lucid non-material absorption states.  And, to address the fact that there are clearly preliminary phenomena that arises prior to the non-material absorption states as "merely access concentration."

Let us first examine how the Discourses of the Buddha describe the first four absorption states to see whether we can support a belief that the first stages of absorption within the Buddha's discourses were in fact lucid non-material states or whether he believed the physical senses were still active.

Maha-satipatthana Sutta (DN 22)

[22]"And what is right meditation (sama-samadhi)? There is the case where an aspirant is quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful mental states enters and remains in the first ecstasy (jhana): bliss (piiti) and joy (sukha) born from withdrawal, accompanied by applied and sustained attention (vitakka and vicára). With the stilling of applied and sustained attention vitakka and vicára, one enters and remains in the second ecstasy (jhana): joy and bliss born of tranquility, unification of awareness free from applied and sustained attention (vitakka and vicára) with internal assurance. With the fading of joy one remains in equanimity, aware and alert, physically sensitive to bliss (piiti). One enters and remains in the third ecstasy (jhana), of which the Noble Ones declare, 'equanimous and aware, one has a pleasurable abiding.' With the abandoning of grasping and aversion for pleasure and pain (sukha and dukkha) -- as with the earlier disappearance of pleasure and pain -- one enters and remains in the fourth ecstasy (jhana): purity of equanimity and awareness, with neither pleasure nor pain. This is called right meditation."

Kayagata-sati Sutta (MN 119)

"Furthermore, quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful mental qualities, he enters and remains in the first absorption (jhana): bliss (piti) and joy (sukha) born from withdrawal, accompanied by applied and sustained attention (vitakka and vicára). He permeates and pervades, suffuses and fills this very body with bliss (piti) and joy (sukha) born from withdrawal. Just as if a skilled bathman or bathman's apprentice would pour bath powder into a brass basin and knead it together, sprinkling it again and again with water, so that his ball of bath powder becomes saturated, moisture-laden, permeated within and without -- would nevertheless not drip; even so, the monk permeates... this very body with bliss (piti) and joy (sukha) born of withdrawal. There is nothing of his entire body that is not pervaded by bliss (piti) and joy (sukha) born from withdrawal. And as he remains thus heedful, ardent, and resolute, any memories and resolutions related to the household life are abandoned, and with their abandoning his mind gathers and settles inwardly, grows unified and centered. This is how a monk develops mindfulness of the body."

There is more than an intriguing implication in the second line in the Maha-satipatthana Sutta (DN 22) in the stanza that describes the absorption states (jhanas).  That line says, "There is the case where an aspirant is quite withdrawn from sensuality..." Thus there is at least a suggestion of a non-sensory domain in being "withdrawn from sensuality."  However, if we examine the various Suttas that articulate the absorption states more clearly we find none of them clearly indicate the physical senses are effaced, nor do they suggest the contemplative has entered a non-physical sensory domain.  Instead we find in the Kayagata-sati Sutta (MN 119) and the Samaññaphala Sutta (DN 2) this basic formula, "...He permeates and pervades, suffuses and fills this very body with bliss (piti) and joy (sukha) born from withdrawal."

Thus, it seems reasonable to conclude if access concentration was worth mentioning the Buddha would have discussed it. Since the concept does not appear in the suttas (sutras) we can conclude it is an anomaly of later Buddhist literature. We can also conclude if deeper stages of absorption were to be avoided, as the dry insight commentaries suggest, then there would have been numerous Discourses of the Buddha warning disciples not to indulge in absorption (jhana) when they should focus on insight (vipassana) instead, if access concentration were indeed sufficient. But not a single sutta discusses access concentration, nor do they refer to insight (vipassana) as a practice path, nor do they suggest deep stages of absorption (jhana) are to be avoided, thus should we conclude that the commentaries are in error on these topics.

May you be enlightened in this very lifetime,

Jhanananda (Jeffrey S. Brooks):

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