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Equanimity and mindfulness in the fourth jhana

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#1

The standard formula for the fourth jhana includes the following phrase:

upekkhāsatipārisuddhiṁ

Which I translate as:

pure equanimity and mindfulness

Ven Brahmali translates it similarly:

purity of mindfulness and even-mindedness

But Bhikkhu Bodhi translates it as: (DN 2)

mindfulness fully purified by equanimity

or in MN 27

purity of mindfulness due to equanimity

Or his most recent rendering in AN 3.58:

which has purification of mindfulness by equanimity

So the question arises, why is there this difference? Ven Bodhi translates it to give a specific relation between elements of the compound: the mindfulness has become purified because of equanimity. This gives a strongly articulated sense to the compound. He has retained this reading over more than three decades, with only minor adjustments in rendering.

Now, in Pali, compounds are complex, and frequently they may be construed in multiple ways. Grammatically there are several kinds of compounds, that allow a wide range of relations between the terms, and these are not explicit but must be inferred from context.

Now, there is nothing definitive in the suttas that can explain this. I think Ven Bodhi’s rendering reflects the Theravadin interpretation, which is first found in the Abhidhamma Vibhanga, Jhanavibhanga. This is one of the early strata of Abhidhamma texts, postdating the Buddha by perhaps 200 or 300 years. It says:

Ayaṃ sati imāya upekkhāya vivaṭā hoti parisuddhā pariyodātā
This mindfulness is clarified, purified, and cleansed by that equanimity.

This is quite straightforward, and gives a nice, relatively early, support for this reading. So why don’t I agree with it?

Well, first, there are two general principles that inform my translation. These are somewhat counter-intuitive, so it is worth spelling them out.

One is the “principle of least meaning”. This is a handy rule of thumb, that stems from the observation that we tend to read excessive meaning into texts, especially ancient spiritual texts. To counteract that, it is often prudent to read the texts in the most simple and plain way possible, unless there is a good reason to do otherwise. In this case, the Vibhanga interpretation gives a more highly articulated meaning to the passage, so a simpler reading would be preferred.

The second is the “principle of least accuracy”. This stems from the observation that Buddhist studies and translations are still in an immature stage, and we are a lot less certain about things than we think. People like it when two translators are consistent, because it “reduces confusion”. But confusion is entirely appropriate when it is a confusing matter. If everyone translates things the same way, it conveys the impression that all the experts agree that this is what it means. But if you talk to the experts, they will frequently say, “well, it could easily be the other thing, this is just a best guess”. This is similar to the problem of false precision in mathematics. Thus a translation should strive to convey no more accuracy than is justified, and this is considered in light of other translations, too. Seeing two different translations informs a reader that there are a variety of possibilities.

Okay, so in the current phrase, translating as “pure equanimity and mindfulness” is a less complex and articulated meaning, in agreement with the “principle of least meaning”. And it differs from a standard translation, so it agrees with “principle of least accuracy”.

But these are, of course, very general rules of thumb. Is there anything more specific we can point to?

Yes, there is! The most decisive point, I believe, must be from the jhana formulas themselves, rather than from any later explanation. In the third jhana, equanimity and mindfulness are present. But there is no special relation between them: a meditator is simply said to be “equanimous and mindful”. Now, unless there is good reason to think otherwise, surely the same situation would pertain in the fourth jhana. The addition of “purified” makes perfect sense here, too: it’s basically the same thing, but better.

A further point of reference is MN 111 Anupada. This late sutta gives a list of factors present in the fourth jhana:

Ye ca catutthe jhāne dhammā—upekkhā adukkhamasukhā vedanā passaddhattā cetaso anābhogo satipārisuddhi cittekaggatā ca,
the phenomena in the fourth absorption: equanimity and neutral feeling and mental unconcern due to tranquility and pure mindfulness, and unification of mind;

Here, as you can see, “pure” is applied to mindfulness, not to equanimity, and the two items appear as simple factors side-by-side, with no relation between them. This would suggest the rendering:

with equanimity and pure mindfulness

This raises the question as to whether we are right to distribute “pure” across both terms. The Sanskrit Abhidharma texts offer more guidance on this point, as we shall see.

The following are a range of Sanskrit texts that feature the fourth jhana formula. Even though most or all of these are late, the jhana formula is presented with only inconsequential variants throughout.

Saṅgītisūtra

Arthaviniścaya 8

Arthaviniścaya 12

Arthaviniścaya 19

Mahāvastu 22

Mahāvastu 47

Mahāvastu 63

Lalitavistara 11

Lalitavistara 22

Dharmaskandha 12

Śrāvakabhūmi

So that’s not much help.

Turning to the Sanskritic Abhidharma texts not on SC, I found the following:

Abhidharmasamuccaya (Asanga)

catvāryaṅgāni upekṣāpariśuddhiḥ smṛtipariśuddhiḥ aduḥkhāsukhā vedanā cittaikāgratā ca
Four factors: pure equanimity, pure mindfulness, no pleasant or painful feeling, unification of mind

Abhidharmasamuccayabhasya (i.e. commentary on Asanga’s Abhidharmasamuccaya)

caturthe dhyāne upekṣāpariśuddhiḥ smṛtipariśuddhiśca
In the forth jhana, pure equanimity and pure mindfulness

Vasubandhu: Abhidharmakosa-bhasya

tatra catvāryaṅgāni aduḥkhāsukhā vedanā upekṣāpariśuddhiḥ smṛtipariśuddhiḥ samādhiśca
Therein, the four factors are no pleasant or painful feeling, pure equanimity, pure mindfulness, immersion

Vimalamitra(?): Abhidharmadipa , with auto(?)-commentary Vibhasaprabhavrtti

caturthe khalu dhyāne śubhe catvāryaṅgāni | aduḥkhāsukhāvedanā upekṣā ca smṛtipariśuddhiḥ samādhiśca
In the forth jhana, four beautiful factors: no pleasant or painful feeling, equanimity, pure mindfulness, immersion

Obviously these are very similar and represent a coherent tradition. They are quite unambiguous, and simply list equanimity and mindfulness as distinct factors. With the notable exception of the last text—which is reminiscent of MN 111—all of them distribute “pure” across the two terms, mindfulness and equanimity.

It thus seems that the northern tradition—here, the Yogacara, probably reflecting the broader Sarvastivada—differed from the Sri Lankan Mahavihara in the explanation of these terms.

However, a more nuanced take than any of these is offered by Harivarman.

Harivarman: Satyasiddhisastra

upekṣāsmṛtipariśuddhamiti | atropekṣā pariśuddhā | anīṣaṇatvāt | triṣu dhyāneṣvasti īṣaṇaṃ yadidaṃ sukhamiti |
Equanimity-mindfulness-purified: herein, equanimity is purified, as it is without movement (“hastiness”). In the three (former) jhanas there is movement, that is, pleasure.
asmiṃśca dhyāne smṛtirapi pariśuddhā | kasmāt | tṛtīyadhyāne sukhāsaṅgitvāt smṛtirvyākulā | caturthadhyānaṃ prāpya sukharāgasya prahāṇāt smṛtiḥ pariśuddhā |
And in this jhana mindfulness is also purified. Why? As the three jhanas possess a connection with pleasure, mindfulness is unsteady. But having attained the fourth jhana, due to the abandoning of desire for pleasure, mindfulness is purified.

This gives us support for both readings. It explicitly says that both equanimity and mindfulness are purified. But it also says that the purification of mindfulness is due to the ending of desire for pleasure, i.e. equanimity.

What is, I believe, happening in such cases, is that the text has a simple meaning, and the commentator is drawing out implications. That’s the role of commentators. However, it’s not the role of translators: our job is to state the core, plain meaning clearly, keeping interpretation to a minimum. This comes back to the principle of least meaning.

In sum, I would say that the preponderance of evidence supports the plainer reading. Due to the fact that mindfulness and purity are together in the compound, and that MN 111 and the Abhidharmadipa associate them more closely, perhaps we should favor “pure mindfulness and equanimity”, rather than “pure equanimity and mindfulness”.

The notion that mindfulness is purified “by” equanimity is probably best left to exegesis rather than translation. This is, however, a matter of taste rather than anything definitive. This reading is found in the Jhanavibhanga, which is probably the oldest explicit interpretation of this point that we have, and following its lead is by no means unreasonable.


#2

Bhant @sujato
What is the difference between Ekagata and Upekkha?
The way I understand what you find in the fourth Jhana is Ekagata only ( as vitaaka, Vicara, Pithy, and Sukha are eliminated)
I think mindfulness is there all the way from start to the fourth Jhana. What mind brings to Equanimity is the mindfulness. Not the equanimity bring the mind to mindfulness.
Another point is how mindfulness is purified? I think the mind is purified by mindfulness.


#3

I also like to know the diffrence of these two approaches or the connection.

  • Vitakka, Vicara,Pity,Sukha,Ekagata
  • Metta,karuna,Muditha,Upekkha

#4

Omigosh. I’ve been listening to this for MONTHS and I never really heard “pure” until I read your post. (smacks head).

Thank you, Bhante. :pray:

Cheers,
The Mindless One.


#5

What is pure equanimity?
Is there an impure equanimity?


#6

Fourth :slightly_smiling_face:


#7

I somehow miss a discussion about what upekkha actually means. It seems that ‘equanimity’ has reached consensus - but is it that self-evident?


#8

Would you say more about what other interpretations would apply?

  • For me tranquility is like still water, you can play with it, sink into it and get eaten by a shark unawares.
  • For me equanimity is like ice, it will support me, keep me safe from sharks and Titanics sink when they impinge on it.

Leaving both behind, there is just the empty ocean.


#9

I just doubt that ‘equanimity’ captures what upekkha is about. Samadhi is the highest accomplishment in the 8fold path, and upekkha is the highest development within samadhi. And in the bojjhangas upekkha consequently surpasses samadhi.

The term ‘equanimity’ doesn’t for my taste transport the awe of the 3rd and 4th jhana or the last limb just before liberation.


#10

Ahhhh. Thanks for the clarification. For my part, I am drawn to MN121, which does not use upekkha. This for me is the empty ocean:

So, Ānanda, you should train like this: ‘We will enter and remain in the pure, ultimate, supreme emptiness.’
Tasmātiha, ānanda, ‘parisuddhaṃ paramānuttaraṃ suññataṃ upasampajja viharissāmā’ti—


#11

Thanks for your detailed research on this. I have a vague memory that I also wanted to do this in connection with my own translation, but I never got down to it. So this is very useful.

In support of your rather tentative conclusion, I would add the following evidence from the suttas. In the Dhātuvibhaṅga Sutta (MN 140), we have the following:

Adukkhamasukhavedaniyaṃ, bhikkhu, phassaṃ paṭicca uppajjati adukkhamasukhā vedanā. So adukkhamasukhaṃ vedanaṃ vedayamāno ‘adukkhamasukhaṃ vedanaṃ vedayāmī’ti pajānāti. ‘Tasseva adukkhamasukhavedaniyassa phassassa nirodhā yaṃ tajjaṃ vedayitaṃ adukkhamasukhavedaniyaṃ phassaṃ paṭicca uppannā adukkhamasukhā vedanā sā nirujjhati, sā vūpasammatī’ti pajānāti.

Athāparaṃ upekkhāyeva avasissati parisuddhā pariyodātā mudu ca kammaññā ca pabhassarā ca.

The context makes it fairly certain that the adukkhamasukhavedaniya mentioned here must refer to the fourth jhāna. And the consequence of this is that the upekkhā is purified.

This actually makes sense regardless of the grammatical relationship between the words of the compound. For even if it is true that upekkhā purifies sati, only the highest degree of upekkhā (that is, “pure” upekkhā) will result in the fully purified sati. It follows that “pure mindfulness and equanimity” or “pure equanimity and mindfulness” is always correct, no matter what the grammatical relationship.


#12

Right, just as sukha can sometimes be a shorthand for jhāna in general.


#13

Yes, but in the context of MN 140 the evidence is even stronger, since the adukkhamasukha comes just before the immaterial attainments.


#14

Going fourth. :slight_smile:


#15

What do you mean, @earcanal?


#16

Just a nice thought to bring to mind if I ever experience fourth jhana.


#17

Pure oil, on pure water, on pure ice…


#18

I’m not qualified to touch on every point made in the OP. But I do have several observations.

One. Adukkhaasukkha is not a “neutral” feeling in the same sense that standing in a house at room temperature would feel “neutral”. Adukkhaasukkha is beyond painful and pleasant.

In the same sense, I suppose, that Sariputta declares Nibbana “pleasant” because there is nothing felt.

Two. My experience of neither pleasure nor pain has directly resulted in my experience of equanimity.

For example:

“There is nothing of this body that he does not pervade with a pure, bright awareness.” Samadhanga Sutta - 4th jhana description

For me, personally, I experience equanimity when the feeling of neither pleasure nor pain subsumes my body - making all of my perceptions equal.

In other words, when I perceive the external world without one preference for one thing and another for another - I am in equanimity.

So I disagree with Bhikkhu Bodhi. I don’t think equanimity is purified by mindfulness. I think it is purified by adukkhaasukkha.

  • Pondera

#19

Practicing mindfulness of breathing and body while climbing over 10 years, my terror of heights receded into equanimity and a gentle, seamless present awareness. That seems very much to me like “equanimity purified by mindfulness”. I was simply applying the mindfulness learned from sitting meditation. And continued application of that mindfulness in all situations has also increased overall equanimity. Given that increase of equanimity via practice of mindfulness, I would personally expect eventually a pure bright awareness. Therefore, I just keep practicing mindfulness.


#20

Equanamous feeling is mentioned here as in the jhana formulas the feeling is always mentioned. All pleasant sensations fall away in the fourt jhana. This doesn’t automatically mean it’s unpleasant. It just is. It’s neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant.