Bhikkhu Analayo

Read “The Basics of Signless Concentration,” an excerpt from Bhikkhu Analayo’s The Signless and the Deathless: On the Realization of Nirvana

An excerpt from Bhikkhu Anālayo’s new book, The Signless and the Deathless: On the Realization of Nirvana — as reviewed in the Fall 2023 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide

By Bhikkhu Analayo

The Basics of Signless Concentration

This excerpt from Bhikkhu Anālayo’s new book, The Signless and the Deathless: On the Realization of Nirvana — as reviewed in the Fall 2023 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide — is provided courtesy of the publisher, Wisdom Publications. We thank Wisdom for sharing this with Buddhadharma’s readers, and we thank our readers for supporting dharma publishers.

The Basics of Signless Concentration

The ability to gain signless concentration is not in itself a mark of being a liberated person. This becomes evident in a passage extant in Pāli and Chinese (translated by Bodhi 2012, 949). The latter proceeds as follows:

Suppose there is a person who attains signless concentration of the mind. Having attained signless concentration of the mind, they in turn dwell being at ease themselves and do not strive further with a wish to attain what has not yet been attained, with a wish to gain what has not been gained, with a wish to realize what has not been realized. At a later time, they in turn associate much with secular people, make fun, become conceited, and engage in all sorts of boisterous talk. As they associate much with secular people, make fun, become conceited, and engage in all sorts of boisterous talk, sensual desire in turn arises in the mind. Sensual desire having arisen in their mind, the body becomes in turn heated up and the mind becomes heated up [with passion]. The body and the mind having become heated up [with passion], they in turn abandon the moral precepts and stop [practicing] the path.

The passage describes a practitioner who has gone forth but then gives up the monastic life, which in the ancient setting was considered a dire misfortune. The two versions illustrate the inability of the mere practice of signless concentration to prevent such a misfortune with a simile. When a king and his army arrive in a forest, because of the resultant noise the chirping of the crickets will no longer be heard. It does not follow, however, that the chirping will never be heard again, which will be the case once the king and his army have left. In other words, the cultivation of signless concentration can have quite a powerful effect, comparable to the arrival of an army in a quiet forest. Yet, once the actual experience is over and its aftereffects have waned, the chirping of defilements can recur in the mind. Such potential recurrence holds as long as defilements have not been removed for good. Although signless concentration can become a powerful tool for accomplishing such removal, it does not ensure freedom from defilements on its own. In principle, it is possible for its remarkable effects to remain temporary, without resulting in a lasting transformation of the mind.

The discourse as a whole sounds a warning for the purpose of countering any mishandling of profound meditative experiences. An experience of signlessness as such falls short of being an awakening event. It would be misleading to believe that, because of having had such a profound meditation experience, there is no longer a need for wholehearted dedication to the practice of liberating insight, let alone of regular meditation. In fact, even the Buddha and his fully awakened disciples are on record for having continued their regular practice of meditation. Meditation is not just a means to gain some attainment or other; it is a way of life, and for one who has reached the acme of inner purification this way of life is natural, even inevitable.

The early discourses mention two basic conditions for the actual practice of signless concentration. These already came up implicitly in relation to the Buddha managing pain by entering signless concentration through not giving attention to any signs (see above p. 24). A Pāli discourse and its Chinese parallel explicitly take up the two conditions required forattaining signless concentration or the signless liberation of the mind (translated by .āṇamoli 1995/2005, 393). The Chinese version proceeds as follows:

There are two causes, two conditions for arousing signless concentration. What are the two? The first is not being mindful of any sign, and the second is being mindful of the element of signlessness.

Whereas this passage speaks of being “mindful,” the otherwise similar Pāli version instead uses the term “attention.” This is not the only occasion where these two textual traditions show this type of terminological variation. Strictly speaking, at least in early Buddhist thought these two mental qualities are distinct, as attention stands for something present in any state of mind, whereas mindfulness is not invariably present and therefore needs to be aroused. Hence, with attention the main question is how to deploy it, in the sense of what is being attended to, whereas with mindfulness the basic task is to establish and cultivate it. However, this perspective changes in later times, and in the Sarvāstivāda tradition(s) mindfulness comes to be seen as a factor present in every state of mind, thereby sharing the role played by attention in early Buddhist texts. Perhaps some such perspective influenced the Chinese translations (or the Indic originals). Such conflation of attention with mindfulness can also be seen in a quotation of the same basic indication in a later work, which also speaks of attention to the signless element, additionally qualified in the Chinese version of this work as being of the “right” type, a qualification not employed in its Tibetan counterpart. The idea of “right attention” as such would correspond to “penetrative attention” (yoniso manasikāra) in Pāli terminology.

Another point worth noting is that all versions explicitly mention the signless element as what the practitioner should be attending to. In the present context, attending to the signless element features as a condition in its own right. However, this is not invariably the case for other passages concerned with signless concentration. For example, in the case of the Buddha being sick, mentioned above (see p. 24), the parallels just mention his entering signless concentration, at times additionally explained as requiring not paying attention to any sign. It seems that in such contexts a reference to the signless element was not considered necessary, presumably due to it being implicitly covered by the idea of not attending to any signs.

The underlying rationale could be that, since attention is present in every moment of mental experience, once one does not attend to any sign, one must be attending to the absence of signs—that is, to the signless element. In order to provide a doctrinally exhaustive account of this type of meditative experience, listing attention to the signless element as a second, distinct condition serves to clarify that the absence of attention to any sign does not refer to a state in which perception no longer functions properly, such as, for example, being in the attainment of neither-perception- nor-nonperception or else being just unconscious. In order to distinguish signless concentration from states in which perception no longer operates, it would indeed be necessary to stipulate two conditions: nonattention to signs and attention to signlessness. Nevertheless, from a practical viewpoint it is possible to speak just of the single condition of not taking up any sign at all.

The above-quoted presentation of entry into signless concentration continues by exploring the causes or conditions for remaining in it and for emerging from it. In these respects, the two versions differ. Besides the need to avoid taking up any sign and to keep attending to the signless element to remain in signless concentration, the Pāli version additionally stipulates “prior determination.” Among Pāli discourses, the particular phrasing used here seems unique. Such a reference is not found in the parallel and may be a later addition.

The two parallels agree that emergence requires the opposite to the procedure for entry, in that attention is no longer paid to the element of signlessness and instead is directed to any sign. The Chinese parallel adds to this as a third condition the existence of the body with the six sense spheres conditioned by the life faculty. A comparable reference occursin a discourse on emptiness to be taken up in more detail later, which is extant in Pāli, Chinese, and Tibetan. Here, such a reference occurs in relation to the realization of full awakening, based on a meditative trajectory that incorporates signless meditation (translated by .āṇamoli 1995/2005, 969). Although it remains questionable how far such a reference fits the present case, perhaps it could be related to the fact that, with signless meditation properly practiced, awareness of the body and the six sense spheres is to some extent left behind, as cognizing these would require taking up signs. When emerging from signless concentration, it would take at least a moment before the standard process of mental operation gets back into full swing, and at such a time a practitioner may indeed be just aware of the body and the receptivity through the senses as basic factors of being alive.

In sum, besides the interesting additional points that emerge from only one of the two versions, what they have in common is the need to avoid signs and direct the mind to (the element of) their absence as the conditions for entry and continuous abiding in signless concentration; emerging from it then requires the exact reverse. The challenges of putting these indications into practice come up in a discourse that involves a chief disciple of the Buddha, Mahāmoggallāna/ Mahāmaudgalyāyana, who describes his own practice. The Chinese version records this as follows:

I had this thought: “If a monastic is not mindful of any sign and attains the mental state of signlessness, dwells being endowed with its direct realization, that is called a noble abiding.” I had this thought: “I shall [enter] this noble abiding of not being mindful of any sign and, attaining the mental state of signlessness, dwell being much in it.” Having dwelled much in it, the taking up of signs arose in the mind.

The Pāli version does not employ the qualification “noble” or speak of a “direct realization.” It also phrases the arising of distraction in a slightly different manner, namely in terms of consciousness following after signs (translated by Bodhi 2000, 1308). According to both versions, the Buddha approached Mahāmoggallāna/Mahāmaudgalyāyana personally to encourage him to avoid any negligence, which apparently had caused his taking up of signs.

In the Pāli textual collection, this event is part of a series of such interventions by the Buddha to guide and support Mahāmoggallāna/ Mahāmaudgalyāyana in the cultivation of each of the four absorptions as well as the four immaterial spheres. Since his cultivation of signless concentration is the last of these, this form of presentation could thus give the impression that such signless concentration requires previous mastery of these eight concentrative attainments. The standard description of the four absorptions makes it quite clear that these build on each other, and the same holds for the four immaterial spheres. Moreover, a Pāli discourse and its Chinese parallel indicate that the fourth absorption is the basis for cultivating the first immaterial sphere, confirming that the series of eight involves attainments that build on each other (translated by .āṇamoli 1995/2005, 558). However, in the present case the Chinese version precedes Mahāmoggallāna/Mahāmaudgalyāyana’s cultivation of signless concentration with only one such episode, in which he similarly receives the Buddha’s help in stabilizing the attainment of the second absorption. In fact, listings of other concentrative attainments do not invariably imply that these must build on each other. An example is a listing of the four divine abodes (brahmavihāra) after the four absorptions and before the four immaterial spheres (translated by .āṇamoli 1995/2005, 454). This does not imply that one needs mastery of the fourth absorption to cultivate the divine abodes, nor does it follow that a cultivation of the divine abodes is an indispensable prerequisite for attaining the immaterial spheres. In other words, although the four absorptions and the four immaterial spheres do form a series of practices that build on each other, the mention of other forms of concentration after the four absorptions does not necessarily intend the former to be an indispensable precondition for the latter. The same would apply to the episode discussed earlier, according to which a cultivator of signless concentration may still regress and eventually disrobe, an indication that in both versions occurs after a similar treatment has been applied to cultivators of the four absorptions. Here, too, the mode of presentation need not be taken to imply that mastery of the four absorptions is indispensable for cultivating signless concentration.

In fact, there appears to be no explicit indication that previous mastery of the absorptions is indispensable for the practice of signless concentration. The term “concentration” as such can refer to a fairly broad range of experiences and does not invariably denote absorption. For example, samādhi designates the cultivation of walking meditation in a Pāli discourse (translated by Bodhi 2012, 651), an indication similarly found in the parallels. At the same time, however, the difficulties experienced by Mahāmoggallāna/Mahāmaudgalyāyana make it clear that concentrative abilities are quite an asset when attempting to stay free from taking up signs. The point of this brief exploration is thus certainly not to dismiss the benefit of being able to gain deeper levels of concentration. Instead, the suggestion is only that cultivating signless concentration does not appear to come with explicitly stipulated prerequisites and thus need not be considered confined to those who have already mastered absorption. What such practice appears to require above all is a high degree of mindfulness and experience in working with the mind’s tendency to take up signs, such as can be developed through sense restraint and the cultivation of bare awareness.

The description of Mahāmoggallāna/Mahāmaudgalyāyana getting distracted by taking up signs has a counterpart in another statement made in a Pāli discourse and its parallels, according to which an abiding in signlessness will not be lost by someone who has developed signless concentration well (translated by Walshe 1987, 501). The two passages, considered together, can be taken as conveying two complementary points: If even a highly accomplished practitioner like Mahāmoggallāna/Mahāmaudgalyāyana got lost by taking up signs, the same is only to be expected for anyone who takes up the same practice. At the same time, however, with continued dedication to this form of practice, such distractions will occur less and less often, until eventually it becomes possible to dwell for sustained periods of time in signlessness.

From The Signless and the Deathless: On the Realization of Nirvana by Bhikkhu Anālayo, Wisdom Publications, 2023.

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Bhikkhu Analayo

Bhikkhu Analayo

Bhikkhu Analayo is a German monk and scholar, ordained in 1995 in Sri Lanka. His books include Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization and Mindfully Facing Climate Change .