I know, I know. Much ink has been spilled on the meditation verses in Snp 4.11. But I haven’t personally seen much (or any) representation of the view that they may be referring to the featureless, and/or emptiness and undirected, liberations.
Let’s review the verses.
Without normal perception
or distorted perception;
not lacking perception,
nor perceiving what has disappeared.
Form disappears for one proceeding thus;
for judgements due to proliferation
spring from perception.
And the Pāli:
Na saññasaññī na visaññasaññī,
Nopi asaññī na vibhūtasaññī;
Evaṁ sametassa vibhoti rūpaṁ,
Saññānidānā hi papañcasaṅkhā.
The main question mark, for me, is the last line. If this is just talking about entering a formless state, why the mention of saññā and papañca?
Animitta cetosamādhi is a state in which one lets go of appearances (or forms) and abides in a state of awareness free of features, marks, or signs. It is a kind of deep extension of what some call ‘bare awareness’ practice, whereby we learn to let go of rumination, desire, aversion, identification, and clinging to sense data and allow the mind to rest in a passive receptivity to conscious experience. As we do this, our relationship to constructing perceptions changes, and things begin to simplify. Gradually, the mind disengages in the de-personalized sense contact and forms (through the senses) to rest more and more in a state devoid of particular characteristics.
It’s hard to talk about: one is percipient, but not in a normal way; perception is not really ‘functioning’ as we tend to think of it in picking up signs and so forth. Either way, we can’t say it is non-percipient. Moreover, it’s not some form of distorted, unhealthy perception—it’s based in principles of Dhamma and a continuation from sense restraint, letting go of vitakka/papañca/grasping, etc. It is bases around turning the mind away from forms and signs, so one is not percipient of what has disappeared. In fact, this is the first ‘thorn’ to the state dropping away: the mind chasing after nimittas. The state is remarkably similar to neither-perception-nor-non-perception when the process is described linguistically, though they are not to be conflated.
The instructions in the verses are perfectly good instructions for approaching animitta cetosamādhi—which does relate to letting go of papañcasankhā—and this state can bring one very close to awakening, but it may be easy to confuse or conflate it. It’s not yet an actual state of reflecting on nibbāna—as some suttas describe—because it is here mainly focused still on letting go of forms and so forth and not going deeper.
The end of the sutta claims that knowing the dependency of this state leads to awakening. That’s precisely what MN 121 teaches: a meditation culminates in animitta samādhi, then one sees into its dependency, and is freed. Of course, seeing into the ultimate dependency or conditionality of experience leads to awakening in general, but this state in particular is singled out. And rightfully so: it is the peak of ‘emptiness’ or letting go of contact attainments one can gain short of realizing full awakening—or the complete letting go of contact.
As I mentioned before, cultivating animitta cetosamādhi is frequently related to sense restraint (see, e.g., MN 121, MN 122, MN 151, etc.), and understandably so because of the connection between grasping signs/features and getting caught up in sense contact. Snp 4.11 is about getting caught up in disputes, desires, and assessment of the various contacts one experiences, leading the questioner to ask about freedom from contact and ‘name and form.’ Name and form, too, is intricately related to the six sense bases and consciousness being caught up in the features of its experience via things like papañca.
So, long story short, I see a connection here on various accounts with animitta cetosamādhi. I find this reading practical and relevant, and fits in with other teachings throughout the Atthakavagga (+Parayana) on non-grasping contact and getting swept up in it. There are, of course, very valid reasons to read it otherwise as have already been discussed many a time.
Let me know what you think, and if this is convincing at all.