Book of Analysis, the illimitables (Vb 13): translator's introduction

By Waltham St. Lawrence

(13) Analysis Of The Illimitables (Appamaññavibhaṅga).

As indicated in the previous section the appropriate object of concentration for the attainment of Jhāna, and thereby for the consequent inhibiting of the Five Hindrances, is selected by the instructor in mental development in accordance with his student's temperament and characteristics. In this the thirteenth vibhaṅga four of these objects are discussed in particular detail. The four objects are: Loving-kindness (mettā), Compassion (karuṇā), Sympathetic Joy (muditā) and Equanimity (upekkhā). These four are grouped together under the single title of The Illimitables (Appamaññā), the reason for this being that when each is considered as a separate quality it is seen to be capable of embracing everything when, according to the degree of concentration exerted, it is expanded infinitely. Now it is stated that these four objects for concentrating upon are particularly suited to those whose basic [lvi] tendency is of an hateful or irritable sort. That Loving-kindness, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy and Equanimity are the inhibitors of hatred, with its concomitants of envy, meanness and remorse, Is very clear, It can therefore be appreciated that although so far it is only the inhibiting of the Hindrances which have been spoken of, it is also important to realise that in the proper developing of the dominant factors of Jhāna for the putting on one side of the Hindrances it is equally certain that the whole process be initiated by the inhibiting of any dominating tendencies in the student such as greed, hatred or dullness, As hatred is so common a tendency, it is for this reason that, coupled with the fact that the good effects of the Illimitables on all beings is without limit, in this vibhaṅga they are selected for special examination.

It will have been noticed that the word 'inhibit' has frequently been used in connection with the Hindrances and Jhāna, and now in connection with hatred. It might have been thought more proper to use the term 'eradicate' as being more final an attitude to adopt towards any undesirable condition. At this stage, however, and in dealing with Jhāna it should not be thought of in this way, for to inhibit means to put on one side, whether for a very short or for a very lengthy period of time, and with regard to evil, bad states, this is what Jhāna does. To eradicate means to take out by the root, utterly and completely; this, Jhāna, in its conventional sense, does not do.

The distinction between these two words introduces another and completely different aspect of the whole subject of mental development (bhāvanā), for in speaking of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness the Buddha does not say anything about the inhibiting of suffering; on the contrary he speaks of the way Leading to the Cessation of Suffering. Cessation means to bring to an end; and eradicate means to take out by the root, so in a sense the two words are synonymous. Why, therefore, in this introduction is the word inhibit used so frequently? The reason is that there are two distinct avenues of mental development, One is Jhāna; the other is the outcome of treading that Noble Path which the Buddha pointed to as commencing with the developing of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. The practice and development of Jhāna is called Samathabhāvanā, which means 'mental development where concentration is directed to the calming or taming of the mind by the inhibiting of harmful [lvii] mental states'. The second type is called Vipassanābhāvanā, which means 'mental development where concentration is directed to the gaining of Insight into Suffering, its Cause, its Cessation and the Way Leading to its Cessation; also to those attendant focal points of the Buddha's Teaching—Absence of Soul (anatta) and the utter Impermanence (anicca) of all conditioned things'. The consequence of this second type of mental development is not just the inhibiting, but the absolute eradication of all harmful mental states.

That the ultimate aim of the student of the Buddha's Teaching should be to strive for mental development, where concentration is directed to the gaining of insight, is without question. However, the reason for the Buddha having spoken so frequently and in such detail of the jhānic aspect of mental development, should be given the great attention which he clearly intended it should have, even though it is readily appreciated that genuine and immutable insight cannot be gained even in its lowest degrees of completeness without the absolute eradication of many of the groups of obstacles spoken of earlier.

To eradicate these qualities which are so deeply and firmly rooted, the branches and tendrils of which are so twisted and threaded throughout one's mental make-up as virtually to constitute that make-up, is not easily achieved. The training to break this tangle must be thorough and the practice virtually invincible for there to be any real effect, because by very definition how can a being be released from the suffering concomitant with that system of Causal Relations while there yet remains the slightest bond— however tenuous it may be—with any of those undesirable qualities which maintain that system of Causal Relations, and which dominate the being so completely.

The important role, therefore, which jhānic training and practice has to play in this battle for release, is that although it is incapable in itself of eradicating these obstacles to understanding, it can by constantly inhibiting them make it gradually less easy for them to arise; they become weaker like a tree whose leaves and branches are cut away. With this weakening of bad states and bad roots, mental development where concentration is directed to the gaining of insight becomes a more straightforward and less hampered process, and the achieving of final eradication more certain. In this way the whole process of mental development becomes a [lviii] properly balanced whole where the casting undesirable aspects are better understood, guarded against, and with practice held in abeyance for long periods while the real task of gaining under-standing is pursued with unremitting energy.

Returning once more to the Four Illimitables, it should be said that quite apart from their being objects for mental development in their own right, their use as forerunners to more strenuous practice by the student can do a very great deal towards creating that proper basis for practice where bad states are put aside and prevented from arising, and where good states are fostered and made to arise. As their individual names indicate, not only do they inhibit that most harmful state, hatred, so far as the individual himself is concerned, but as their group title shows, they can be expanded mentally to embrace and cast their effect on individuals, the world and the whole universe. In their practice they establish firmly Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood and that proper composure of mind which is Equanimity.

Thus it is that a special vibhaṅga is devoted to these four particular objects of mental development. Therein they are analysed by way of the Suttanta method to show their nature and mode of practice; by the Abhidhamma method to show the particular jhānic states with which they can be associated; and finally by the section of Interrogation to show what their standing can be in the absolute terms of Dhammasaṅgaṇī classification.

This is a very important chapter in view of the prevalence in beings of Hatred as a most dominant, insidious and difficult root even to inhibit, let alone eradicate.