The "Dimensions"

Could someone explain what is meant by the “Dimension of the infinitude of space”, “Dimension of the infinitude of consciousness”, and “Dimension of nothingness”? I find these referenced to occasionally in the Sutta Pitaka, such as in the Cūḷa Suññata Sutta and the Sattadhātu Sutta, but do not understand what these terms are referring to.

Thank you.


‘Dimension’ is the translation of the Pali ‘Āyatana’. I attempt a clarification of this term in this paper:


That was an interesting read @Gabriel ! I’ve now begun to go through the related thread on your essay.

Would I be right in thinking of an ayatana as a virtual space (kinda like cyberspace?) where Conciousness gets established, thereby allowing the illusory process “Self” to come into existence? That would make sense of the way the putative self is related to the various dimensions in MN102 for instance. :thinking:

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I’m not sure if I would put it this way: “allowing the illusory process “Self” to come into existence”. Keep in mind that also the arahants changed their ayatana in meditation. So I would rather opt for the realm where experience happens.

I wouldn’t even call it a ‘space’ because (infinite) space itself can be an ayatana. That’s maybe why translators went for the more abstract ‘realm’, ‘base’, ‘dimension’.


Yes, that fits nicely! :slightly_smiling_face:
What I was rather clumsily trying to say is - perhaps MN102 (and other suttas) seem to indicate that the sense of Self is constructed on the basis of the realm of experience? And depending on the habitual realm occupied (6 sense world for us, various different dimensions for experienced meditators) some kind of Self comes into existence again and again (classical DO). The Arahant puts an end to the clinging and craving to any realm of existence, hence ‘Salyatana nirodho’ etc in the dependent cessation chain.
Just pondering it over… would love to hear your thoughts on the relationship of the Self to the Ayatana.

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Don’t mind the words, Dimensions, spheres, realms.

They are part of the formless realms, characteristics: no body, only mind, live super long (many thousands of universe cycles) and blissful, after which they die from those realms and be reborn in other realms.

Due to not having body, they cannot see, hear, taste etc.

These realms are what people can be reborn into after death if you develop the Jhanas beyond 4th Jhanas to the formless Jhanas. The infinity of space, consciousness, nothingness and neither perception nor non perception refers more to the object contemplated. They are one sequence after another. And the common thing is to reflect that with body comes suffering, they want to get rid of the body.

They are still in samsara.


I mostly agree with this. Personally I avoid the use of ‘self’ in the Buddhist context as it became a uselessly vague term/concept (in my taste). But I guess we have a similar understanding: experience happens according to the ayatana - a liberated citta navigates freely between some or all ayatanas while an unliberated one gets entangled and stumbles due to its instinctive identification with experience.


Thank you for the thorough response Gabriel

However, your paper leads me to elaborate on my original question… If Ayatana means a psychological “dwelling space”, then what specifically are the four higher ayatanas referring to? For example, would a physicist who comes to the conclusion that space is infinite dwell within the ayatana of infinite space (ākāsānañcāyatana), simply because that is a viewpoint they believe in and understand? I’m sure the answer is no.

In that case, then the ayatana of infinite space must refer to something more than the sum of its component words. So what is it referring to exactly?

Sorry, I don’t understand where your fundamental unclearity is. The four higher ayatanas are meditation, i.e. ‘mental’ states, not physical ones. The ayatana of infinite space is the meditative state in which the experience is of infinite ‘mental space’.

You could legitimately ask, ‘ok, but what does that exactly mean? How does that feel like?’. To which my answer would be: The texts don’t say, and I don’t even know if that question would be satisfied by answers of meditation masters. Just as jhanas I guess one has to be there in order to understand it.


You could legitimately ask, ‘ok, but what does that exactly mean? How does that feel like?’. To which my answer would be: The texts don’t say, and I don’t even know if that question would be satisfied by answers of meditation masters. Just as jhanas I guess one has to be there in order to understand it.

Yes, that is my fundamental question. I am aware these are higher mental ayatana states but I am looking for a more clear definition of what exactly each means. Hence my example of the physicist who does not practice meditation but would fulfill a simplistic definition of the ayatana of infinite space.

Do you happen to know of any descriptions of these states whatsoever? Based on your response it sounds like attaining one of the four higher ayatanas is very rare. Are there any monks who claim to have attained one of them?

I’m afraid whatever you will find in this direction will not be satisfying. People who freely share their knowledge of having allegedly achieved these states have a doubtful authority. And the masters who seem more legit simply don’t talk about it. There are stories circulating, but not on this forum, and I also will not participate in their distribution.

Also keep in mind that any description of these fancyful states will only tickle your fantasy to project something and not actually transmit knowledge of these states. Just as with the classic tale of the fish who asks the frog what the dry-land-experience is like. But maybe what you find will inspire you in some way.

Since those realms are mind only, and physics doesn’t study the mind, only physical world, no I don’t think they refer to actual infinity of space, nothingness as seen in physics.


@Gabriel I see. Of course, I am already aware that any verbal description would be incorrect and that true knowledge can only be attained through direct experience.

But if it is as you say, then I wonder if these higher ayatana states were mistakenly introduced over the several hundred years from the death of the Buddha to the first writing of the Tipitaka. Anything can be described in language, even though the accuracy wildly varies. Zen koans are a good example of this, where the language itself has become near-nonsense but nonetheless can still be understood by those with direct experience.

So if no description has been given whatsoever-- not even a koan-like one-- then that implies it has not been actually experienced.

As a counterpoint, textual corruption is just as likely to result in the loss of a truth as it is to result in the gain of a falsehood; perhapes even moreso. Maybe later sources from other teachers, such as the Visuddhimagga, will have a description of these states that had been lost from the Tipitaka. Sadly I have not yet read that book.

@NgXinZhao That makes sense. If the “universe” is of mental states instead of physical ones, then perhaps “the infinitude of space” refers to the infinitude of possible mental states? Implying a higher vantage point from which to see the infinitely many possibilities and “move” among them?

I realize too much speculation on the specifics is a good way to become entangled in wrong view, but even this general conclusion is helpful, if it is generally correct.

I dunno. Just follow what’s available in the tradition, use infinite space as the object, then attain to that.

It’s possible but not likely in my view. The references to the four higher ayatanas are too numerous. I find it more likely that there was early knowledge of these states (by the Buddha or other early teachers) but that the details were not preserved or got lost when urbanized monasticism (who put things down in writing) didn’t meditate in this way.

I agree. The lack of descriptions and details is unsatisfactory and puts a limit to meaningful speculation.

I managed to find a description on Access to Insight.

They describe ayatana as a “place” that people who have attained the fourth jhana are reincarnated in, not unlike the brahma realms and the hells. This seems to contradict your paper’s description of ayatana.

I don’t see any definition like this in the text, please quote.

Apart from that I could generally be wrong, but I support my findings with a large amount of sources, so a teacher merely saying something else doesn’t make my conclusion right or wrong. It depends on the quality of sources which are referenced and how encompassing the interpretation is.

Also, Thanissaro Bh. is surely aware that ayatanas are not only in the arupas but also in the chal-ayatanas (saḷāyatana) of the six-sense-realm.


I’m sure the misunderstanding lies within me, rather than you or Thanissaro Bh., considering this is new knowledge to me.

I was basing that statement off of the fact that the arupa-loka (the four higher ayatana states) are described as being among the 31 planes of existence. The other 27 planes include the realms of the devas and brahmas, the realm of the asuras, the animal realm, and the human realm.

Without copy-pasting the whole list, here is a small quote describing them:

Meaning, these are realms that one is reincarnated into, as opposed to a mental state. This agrees with the earlier description of them as being among the 31 planes of existence.

This also implies that they are not mental states, but rather external, physical realms that the meditator may visit at will, as the Buddha demonstrated many times.

There are two elements that I’d like to point out: 1.There is a difference between ayatana and loka 2.The rebirth realms in general

To 1: Ayatana is not loka. Very simply put ayatana is mental/experiential and loka is objective/physical. So beings get born into a loka, not an ayatana.

To 2: Here the connection between loka and ayatana comes into play. I think it can be shown (with a lot of text work however) that the pedantic system of ‘31 planes’ or any other large number of planes and the equivalence of a precise meditation or other state of mind is a later scholastic development and not from the Buddha. That is, to people who believe in text-critical work. If someone believes the suttas are fully the Buddha’s words then I don’t have anything to offer anyway. I don’t know what the ‘original’ model was but it’s not the one that is hammered out in scholastic texts or the Abdhidhamma. Just as a hint - the ‘planes’ are not consistent across the Nikayas. Other than that a detailed research into the relationship between loka, ayatana, and related terms would certainly be interesting.


If you can keep an open mind, I’d like to offer you a thought experiment…

  1. Does this Forum Exist? Where? Is that realm physical or Formless?
  2. Can you and I visit the Forum at will? How? Where are we meeting?
  3. If I am to visit the Forum often enough, will some bit of my mind stream viz thoughts, comments, actions remain in the Forum?
  4. If I am to die suddenly, will that bit of my mindstream which is on the Forum die immediately with me or will it still continue producing effects, even though I’m dead?
    (For example, what I am saying here is having some effect on you, but by the time you read this I could already be dead! And this post might be read by many others too… <think preserved D&D records exhumed off a drive in 20,000 AD being read by a researcher :rofl:>)
  5. Could it be said, in a way, that I continue to exist within the realm of the Forum, in terms of reverberating experience, even though my physical form is no more?
  6. What if engineers found a way to upload my entire mind to this realm? Would it become a full fledged loka?

Perhaps this works for you, perhaps it doesn’t! If it doesn’t make any sense, never mind! Perhaps another time…