One of the more significant discussions in the Madhyama Āgama regarding the practice of dhyāna (P. jhāna) is found in MĀ 176 The Dhyāna Practitioner, a sutra that doesn’t appear to have a parallel in Pali.
It’s a fairly lengthy and repetitive text (~4,000 words in English) because it applies the same formulas to each step of moving from the first dhyāna to the abode that’s neither with nor without perception.
After a recent discussion about the nature of jhāna, I revisited my draft translation and worked on editing it so that I can release it at Dharma Pearls. But, I also thought it would be helpful to summarize the essential takeaways that we get from this text and provide some of the “behind the scenes” thoughts and difficulties I have as a translator. Given how technical some of the expressions are, it’s important to be aware of different possible readings.
MĀ 176 outlines four cases of a dhyāna practitioner who is:
- Increasing (熾盛) but thinks they are decreasing (衰退)
- Decreasing but thinks they are increasing
- Increasing and truly knows they are increasing
- Decreasing and truly knows they are decreasing
The pair of terms 熾盛 and 衰退 have more a dynamic and energetic color to their meanings than the bland English translation as “increasing” and “decreasing,” and they occur as antonyms in a number of other sutras in MĀ. They are used for a fire that’s growing larger and hotter as its fed more fuel or one that’s diminishing as it burns out. Indeed, 熾 literally refers to a blazing fire. But the terms are also used outside of fire growth and decline, such as when describing a city as prosperous or declining. Waxing and waning seem like good English translations.
It’s interesting that in MĀ 176 these two terms are used for a practitioner who is moving to a higher attainment or dropping out of samādhi because of a mental disturbance. The mental state itself was apparently thought of as growing or declining like a fire or a city’s economy, rather than advancement or refinement.
Each of the above four cases, which are two confusions and two correct assessments, are depicted as occurring after attaining a given level among the eight dhyāna-samādhis (form and formless). The context suggests that the mental assessments, which are depicted as verbal, occur when the practitioner is in a sort of transitional form of samādhi described as “cultivating right thought and delighting in tranquility” (心修習正思，快樂息寂).
It makes sense that this would occur because the practitioner presumably must make a decision or refocus their mind in some way to effect the movement from one dhyāna or samādhi to the next, and this is given some description in this sutra as it explains how practitioners get the transition wrong or right. This is handled a little differently in each case, so I’ll break down the formulas deployed in each.
The formula for the first case, which is repeated seven times, is as below:
|「云何行禪者熾盛而謂衰退？彼行禪者離欲、離惡不善之法，有覺、有觀，離生喜、樂，得初禪成就遊。||“How does a dhyāna practitioner wax but say they are waning? That dhyāna practitioner is secluded from desire and secluded from bad and unskillful things. With perception and contemplation, this seclusion produces joy and happiness, and they attain accomplishment of the first dhyāna.|
|彼心修習正思，則從初禪趣第二禪，是勝息寂。彼行禪者便作是念：『我心離本相，更趣餘處，失初禪，滅定也。』彼行禪者不知如真，『我心修習正思，快樂息寂，則從初禪趣第二禪，是勝息寂。』彼不知如真已，於如退轉，意便失定，如是行禪者熾盛而謂衰退。||“Cultivating right thought in their mind, they then move from the first dhyāna toward the second dhyāna, which is a greater tranquility. That dhyāna practitioner then thinks, ‘My mind has parted with the primary signs [of this samādhi]. It will move toward another abode, lose the first dhyāna, and its samādhi will cease.’ That dhyāna practitioner doesn’t truly know, ‘My mind is cultivating right thought and delighting in tranquility. It’ll move from the first dhyāna toward the second dhyāna, which is a greater tranquility.’ Not truly knowing that, their mind retreats in this way and loses its samādhi. Thus, the dhyāna practitioner is waxing but says that they are waning.|
From the outset of this passage, we get the impression that the transitional form of samādhi is noticeable to the practitioner when they enter it, and it can feel like losing stability. In the first case, they mistake it for losing the stability of their current level of samādhi (in this case, the first dhyāna). This is apparently disturbing enough that they in fact do lose stability and drop out of samādhi.
There are couple terms that are obscure enough to warrant some further comments. They appear to be technical and nature, and might well be discussed somewhere in the Abhidharma of the northern tradition, but here I’ve rendered them somewhat broadly as a measure of caution.
The first note I’ll make is regarding my translation of 覺 (Skt. vitarka) in the dhyāna formula as “perception,” which is admittedly problematic because it’s easily confused with another perception, 想 (Skt. saṃjñā). The intended meaning of vitarka-perception is the mental act of noticing and becoming aware of something. The intended meaning of saṃjñā-perception is the content of what is noticed or recognized. Someday, I will figure out a better way to translate dhyāna-vitarka, but for the time being I do still wince when the two terms occur in the same passage and think, “Oh, I need to fix that somehow.”
I’ve translated the verb 趣 as “moving from x to(ward) y.” The term is more familiar as a noun referring to a destination like the realms of rebirth after death. As a verb it usually means to “advance quickly” or “hasten.” But the compound 趣向 has the same meaning I think is most likely here: To move towards or in a certain direction.
I’ve translated 本相 as “primary signs,” and I’m interpreting it to refer to the mental attributes associated with a particular dhyāna or samādhi. It might be a collective term for the factors associated with each attainment, so I’ve translated it in plural. The Chinese term occurs as a translation of sva-lakṣaṇa in the later Abhidharma translations, which refers to characteristics unique or specific to a given thing (Skt. dharma).
Another term that’s a little unclear is 正思, which I’ve translated conservatively as “right thought,” but 思 can translate Skt. cetana. That reading would suggest something more specific like “right intention” or “right decision,” and that would make sense in the context of transitioning from one dhyāna to another. There’s perhaps a correct intention needed for it to occur properly.
|「云何行禪者衰退而謂熾盛？彼行禪者離欲、離惡不善之法，有覺、有觀，離生喜、樂，得初禪成就遊。||“How does a dhyāna practitioner wane but say they are waxing? That dhyāna practitioner is secluded from desire and secluded from bad and unskillful things. With perception and contemplation, this seclusion produces joy and happiness, and they attain accomplishment of the first dhyāna.|
|彼思餘小想，修習第二禪道，彼行禪者便作是念：『我心修習正思，快樂息寂，則從初禪趣第二禪，是勝息寂。』彼行禪者不知如真，『寧可思厭相應想入初禪，不應思餘小想入第二禪。』彼不知如真已，不覺彼心而便失定，如是行禪者衰退而謂熾盛。||“Thinking of another lesser perception, they cultivate the way to the second dhyāna. That dhyāna practitioner then thinks, ‘My mind is cultivating right thought and delighting in tranquility. It’ll move from the first dhyāna to the second dhyāna, which is a greater tranquility.’ That dhyāna practitioner doesn’t truly know, ‘I’d better consider tiring of perceptions that are associated with entry to the first dhyāna. I shouldn’t think of another lesser perception to enter the second dhyāna.’ Not truly knowing that, they aren’t aware of their mind, and it loses its samādhi. Thus, the dhyāna practitioner is waning but says that they are waxing.|
Here, the origin of the mistake for the practitioner is that they are actually cultivating the perception of a lower attainment (i.e., a “lesser perception” 小想) when thinking they are cultivating a higher attainment. Presumably, when the result doesn’t match their expectation, it causes confusion enough that they drop out of samādhi.
The wording of the most important line in this formula is awkward to translate closely. It reads in Chinese:
寧可 literally means “would rather” as in “I would rather vanilla instead of chocolate.” It often seems to mean something closer to the English expression “I had better do x instead of y” because it’s more an observation that one line of action is a better choice than another.
In this case, the practitioner should realize they need to drop the perception associated with entering (相應想入) the current attainment (here, the first dhyāna) if they want to move to the next attainment (here, the second dhyāna). The verb used for dropping it is 厭, which means to tire of something, and often translates P. nibbida. The implication, then, is that the lesser perception (小想) is actually that of the first dhyāna. The practitioner is trying to attain the second dhyāna by the same practice that entered as the first dhyāna, which doesn’t work.
Again, 思 might well be more specific like Skt. cetana, but I’ve kept it general here: “to consider.”
|「云何行禪者衰退則知衰退如真？彼行禪者所行、所相、所標，度一切無所有處，非有想非無想，是非有想非無想處成就遊。||“How does a dhyāna practitioner wane and truly know they are waning? That dhyāna practitioner’s practice, signs, and indications cross over all the abode of nothingness to having neither perception nor no perception, and they accomplish the abode that’s neither with nor without perception.|
|彼不受此行，不念此，相、標，唯行無所有處相應念想本退具，彼行禪者便作是念：『我心離本相，更趣餘處，失非有想非無想處，滅定也。』彼知如真已，於如不退，意不失定，如是行禪者衰退則知衰退如真。||“They don’t accept this practice and don’t attend to these signs and indications. They only practice the requisite attention to perceptions related to past reversals to the abode of nothingness. That dhyāna practitioner thinks, ‘My mind has parted with the primary signs [of this samādhi]. It will move to another abode, lose the abode that’s neither with nor without perception, and that samādhi will cease.’ Having truly known this, they don’t retreat in this way, and their mind doesn’t lose its samādhi. Thus, the dhyāna practitioner is waning and truly knows that they are waning.|
This case differs from the other three because it begins with attaining the highest samādhi, the abode that’s neither with or without perception, and takes each attainment in descending order down to exiting the first dhyāna. Presumably that’s because the aim of the practitioner is to step down to a lower attainment, so the sutra walks us down from the top of the ladder, so to speak. The practitioner is depicted as consciously deciding not to continue practicing the current attainment and switch to the specific elements related to the one below it. Correctly aware of what they are doing, they manage the transition without dropping out of samādhi.
This is perhaps the most difficult formula to translate as well because of the technical nature of the descriptions. Again, I’ve opted for general translations where more specific meanings may be intended. Let’s look at some of the problem points in the passage.
“They don’t accept this practice” (不受此行): Practice may be far too unspecific here. 行 commonly translates Skt. saṃskāra, which in different contexts means “something conditioned” or “mental formations, especially volitions.” Here, it might mean something closer to volition than practice. In either case, it’s a bit awkward to me in English. It might mean something even more general like “conditioned mental state,” referring to the attainment that was reached.
“Signs and indications” (相、標): This seems obvious enough when translating literally. What exactly do these terms actually refer to, though? Perhaps the perceptions and factors of a given attainment.
“They only practice the requisite attention to perceptions of past reversals associated with the abode of nothingness” (唯行無所有處相應念想本退具): This is a tough sentence to parse because I believe it contains one of those famously ambiguous Indic noun compounds: 無所有處相應念想本退具. It breaks down like this:
無所有處 = ākiṃcanya-āyatana = abode of nothingness
相應 = yukta? = related or connected
念想 = manoskara-saṃjñā? = attention to perception?
本退 = purva-parihīṇa? = prior reversal
具 = ? = requisite/requirement
So, the entire compound describes a requisite (具), which is attention to perceptions related to (相應) prior reversals (本退) to the abode of nothingness (無所有處). That’s a mouthful, and I’m sure others can find alternate ways to read it. 具, for instance, could also mean something like “completion, perfection, fulfillment” instead of “requisite, requirement, implement.” It’s a passage in need of a commentarial dissection. The basic meaning to me, though, is that the practitioner uses a method (that they’ve perhaps done before) to go in reverse to the prior attainment.
|「云何行禪者熾盛則知熾盛如真？彼行禪者離欲、離惡不善之法，有覺、有觀，離生喜、樂，得初禪成就遊。||“How does a dhyāna practitioner wax and truly know they are waxing? That dhyāna practitioner is secluded from desire and secluded from bad and unskillful things. With perception and contemplation, this seclusion produces joy and happiness, and they attain accomplishment of the first dhyāna.|
|彼心修習正思，快樂息寂，則從初禪趣第二禪，是勝息寂。彼行禪者便作是念：『我心修習正思，快樂息寂，則從初禪趣第二禪，是勝息寂。』彼知如真已，便覺彼心而不失定，如是行禪者熾盛則知熾盛如真。||“Their mind cultivates right thought and delights in tranquility, then it moves from the first dhyāna toward the second dhyāna, which is a greater tranquility. That dhyāna practitioner thinks, ‘My mind is cultivating right thought and delighting in tranquility. It will move from the first dhyāna to the second dhyāna, which is a greater tranquility.’ Truly knowing this, they are aware of their mind, and it doesn’t lose its samādhi. Thus, the dhyāna practitioner is waxing and truly knows that they are waxing.|
After Case 3’s highly technical way of describing how a practitioner decides to go backwards, this formula is remarkably straightforward. The practitioner recognizes that they are entering the transition by “cultivating right thought and delighting in tranquility,” and they manage it properly to reach the next attainment. Most of the problematic points in the translation have already been covered in the previous discussions.