- Supramundane Consciousness
- Dr. Peter Della Santina
In this chapter we conclude our review of the analysis of
consciousness, which brings us to the end of the first book of the Abhidharma Pitaka, the
Dhammasangani (Classification of Factors). Here I will talk about the last of the four
objective classifications of consciousness outlined in Chapter 32, namely, the
supramundane consciousness (alokiya chitta).
There are two ways of distinguishing the supramundane types of
consciousness from the mundane types (the consciousness of the sense sphere, form sphere,
and formless sphere). The first distinction is in terms of determination and direction.
The mundane consciousness is determined, undirected, and subject to karma and conditions,
whereas the supramundane consciousness is determining, directed toward a goal, and no
longer subject to forces beyond its control. Supramundane consciousness is determining
because of the predominance not of karma but of wisdom.
The second distinction is that the mundane types of consciousness have
as their object conditioned phenomena, whereas the supramundane types have as their object
the unconditioned--namely, nirvana. The Buddha spoke of nirvana as an unborn and uncreated
state. Such a state is necessary in order that there be a way out of the conditioned world
of suffering. In this sense the object of the supramundane type of consciousness is
uncreated and unconditioned.
We can generally divide the supramundane types of consciousness into
four active and four passive types of consciousness. Normally, types of consciousness can
be active or passive, and the passive types can be reactive (resultant) or inactive
(functional). However, there are no functional or inactive types of consciousness in this
category because here the types of consciousness are determining, not determined. These
eight basic types of supramundane consciousness, four active and four passive, each
correspond to the path and the fruit of the four types of noble ones--the stream-winner
(sotapanna), the once-returner (sakadagami), the non-returner (anagami), and the Arhat.
Here I ought to point out another distinction between supramundane and mundane
consciousness. In the mundane types of consciousness, active and resultant types of
consciousness can be separated by relatively long periods of time: in other words, an
active, conscious factor may not produce its resultant factor until much later in the
present life or even until a future life. For example, in the case of the consciousness of
the form and formless spheres, the resultant consciousness does not occur until a
subsequent life. In the supramundane types of consciousness, however, the resultant (or
fruit) consciousness follows the active (or path) consciousness immediately.
The eight types of supramundane consciousness can be expanded to forty
by combining each of the eight with each of the five form-sphere absorptions. The four
types of active supramundane consciousness (the path consciousness of the stream-winner
and so forth) combine with the consciousness belonging to the first absorption and so
forth, so that there are twenty types of active supramundane consciousness associated with
the four types of noble persons and five form-sphere absorptions. Similarly, the four
types of resultant supramundane consciousness (the fruit consciousness of the
stream-winner and so forth) combine with the consciousness belonging to the first
absorption and so forth, so that there are twenty types of resultant supramundane
consciousness, and forty in all.
This occurs in the following way. Based on the first form-sphere
absorption, the path and fruit consciousness of the stream-winner arise. Similarly, based
on the second third, fourth, and fifth form-sphere absorptions, the path and the fruit
consciousness of the once-returner, the non-returner, and the Arhat arise. The
consciousness belonging to the supramundane consciousness is therefore developed based on
the various absorptions.
Let us go on to define the four stages of enlightenment: stream-winner
(sotapanna), once-returner (sakadagami), non-returner (anagami), and Arhat. The progress
of a noble one through the four stages of enlightenment is marked by his or her ability to
overcome certain fetters at each stage. There is a progressive elimination of the ten
fetters (samyojana) that bind us to the conditioned universe until such time as we are
able to achieve liberation.
Entry into the stream is marked by the elimination of three fetters.
The first is the belief in the independent and permanent existence of an individual person
(sakkaya ditthi)--namely, taking the mental and physical factors of the personality (form,
feeling, volition, perception, and consciousness) to be the self. It is therefore not
coincidental that we say that the mundane types of consciousness are conditioned by the
aggregates, whereas the supramundane types of consciousness are undetermined by the
aggregates. Overcoming the first fetter marks one's passage from the status of an ordinary
worldling to the status of a noble person.
The second fetter overcome by the stream-winner is doubt
(vichikichchha). This is primarily doubt about the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, but also
about the rules of discipline and interdependent origination.
The third fetter is belief in rules and rituals (silabbataparamasa).
This fetter has often been misunderstood, but refers to the practices of non-Buddhists who
believe that adhering to codes of moral discipline and ascetic rituals alone can lead them
When these three fetters are overcome, one enters the stream and will
achieve liberation within no more than seven lifetimes. One will not be reborn in states
of woe (the realms of the hell beings, hungry ghosts, and animals), and one is guaranteed
implicit faith in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
Having achieved this first stage of enlightenment, the noble person
goes on to weaken two additional fetters, sensual desire and ill-will, thus attaining the
status of a once-returner. These fetters are particularly strong, which is why, even on
this stage, they are only weakened, not removed. Sensual desire and ill-will may still
occasionally arise, although not arise in the gross form familiar to worldly persons.
When these two fetters are finally eliminated, one attains the stage of
the non-returner. At this third stage one is no longer reborn in the cycle of birth and
death but only in the pure abodes reserved for non-returners and Arhats.
When the five remaining fetters are eliminated--attachment to the
sphere of form (rupa raga), attachment to the formless sphere (arupa raga), conceit
(mana), agitation (uddhachcha), and ignorance (avijja)--one achieves the pinnacle of the
supramundane types of consciousness, the fruit consciousness of the Arhat.
These four stages may be divided into two groups: the first three,
which are called stages of one in training, and the fourth, the stage of one who is no
longer in training. For this reason, it may be useful to think of progress to Arhatship as
a process of graduation, as in a program of academic studies. On each stage one overcomes
certain barriers of ignorance and thereby graduates to a higher stage of training.
At this point, a qualitative change occurs, from an undirected and
determined condition to a directed and determining one. How does one make nirvana the
object of one's consciousness, thereby transforming a mundane consciousness whose object
is conditioned into a supramundane consciousness whose object is unconditioned? How does
one realize nirvana? This is done through developing insight, or wisdom (panna). To
develop insight, we apply the two Abhidharmic methods of analysis and synthesis (see
Chapter 32). We apply the analytical method in our examination of consciousness and its
object--in other words, mind and matter. Through this analysis we arrive at the
realization that what we previously took to be a homogeneous, unitary, and substantial
phenomenon is in fact composed of individual elements, all of which are impermanent and in
a constant state of flux. This is true of both mind and matter.
Similarly, we apply the synthetic method by considering the causes and
the conditions of our personal existence. In relation to what factors do we exist as a
psycho-physical entity? This examination reveals that the personality exists dependent on
five factors--ignorance, craving, clinging, karma, and the material sustenance of life
Insight in general is developed through applying the two Abhidharmic
methods by dissecting internal and external, mental and physical phenomena and examining
them in relation to their causes and conditions. These analytical and relational
investigations reveal three interrelated, universal characteristics of existence: (1)
impermanence, (2) suffering, and (3) not-self. Whatever is impermanence is suffering,
because when we see the factors of experience disintegrate, their disintegration and their
impermanence are an occasion for suffering. Moreover, whatever is impermanent and
suffering cannot be the self, because self can neither be transient nor can it be painful.
Penetrating these three characteristics leads to renunciation, to
freedom from the conditioned universe. Through understanding these three, one realizes
that the three mundane spheres are like a banana tree--without essence. This realization
leads to renunciation, to a disengagement from the conditioned sphere, and enables the
consciousness to direct itself toward an unconditioned object, nirvana. Any one of the
three characteristics can serve as a key to this new orientation. Any one of the three can
be taken as an object of contemplation to develop one's insight. We can see this in the
biographical accounts of the foremost disciples of the Buddha. Khema, for instance,
achieved liberation through the contemplation of impermanence (see Chapter 22).
Once one has developed insight into one of the three universal
characteristics, one can experience briefly a vision of nirvana. One's first acquaintance
with nirvana may be likened to a flash of lightning that illuminates one's way in the
darkness of night. The clarity of that flash remains for a long time impressed upon one's
mind, and enables one to continue on one's way knowing that one is proceeding in the right
direction. The first glimpse of nirvana achieved by the stream-winner serves as the
orientation by which he directs his progress toward nirvana. One might almost liken this
gradual development of insight to the acquisition of a skill. After first managing to
bicycle a few yards without falling, it may be some time before one becomes an expert
cyclist. But having successfully ridden those first few yards, one never forgets that
experience and can confidently progress toward one's goal.
It is in this sense that contemplation of the three characteristics
leads to the three doors of liberation: the door of signlessness, the door of
wishlessness, and the door of emptiness. Contemplating the characteristic of impermanence
leads to the door of signlessness; contemplating suffering leads to the door of
wishlessness, or freedom from desire; and contemplating not-self leads to the door of
emptiness. These three doors of liberation are the culmination of meditation on the three
Thus one gradually progresses through the four stages of enlightenment
and eventually achieves Arhatship, that stage of victory over the afflictions in which the
unwholesome roots of greed, ill-will, and delusion are totally removed. Having uprooted
the afflictions, the Arhat is free from the cycle of birth and death and is no longer
Despite some attempts to tarnish it with the charge of selfishness, the
goal of Arhatship is a beneficial and compassionate mode of being. One need only look at
the Buddha's instructions to his eminent Arhat disciples, and also at the careers of these
disciples, to see that in the time of the Buddha Arhatship was not a passive or selfish
state of being. Sariputta, Moggallana, and others were actively engaged in teaching both
the laity and other members of the Buddhist Order. The Buddha himself exhorted his Arhat
disciples to go forth for the benefit of the many. The goal of Arhatship is a glorious and
worthy one that ought not be depreciated in any way by the fact that the Buddhist
tradition also acknowledges the goal of the private or individual Buddha (Pachcheka
Buddha) and the goal of Buddhahood.
[Taken from Peter Della Santina., The Tree of Enlightenment. (Taiwan:
The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 1997), pp. 306-312].
Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for typing