MCTB Appendix, The Cessation of Perception and Feeling, Nirodha Samapatti

The cessation of perception and feeling, Nirodha Samapatti in Pali, is the highest of the temporary attainments. As is traditional in the commentaries, I have included it last. It is discussed in a number of places, including Sutta 44, “The Shorter Series of Questions and Answers”, The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, in a talk given by a female arahat named “Dhammadinna,” and Path to Deliverance by Nyanatiloka, which draws from that fine text. This attainment can neither be said to be a state or not a state, nor can it be said to be purely a concentration attainment or an insight attainment, as it lacks a basis for analysis, meaning that as there is no experience that can be analyzed. The word “Nirodha” (meaning “Cessation”) is also sometimes used without the qualifier “samapatti” to refer to Fruition, so be careful to keep your terms straight when reading the old texts or speaking with others about these things. I always mean the cessation of perception and feeling when I use the word “Nirodha,” but others may not.

It is said that Nirodha can only be attained by anagamis and arahats (those of third and fourth path) who have some mastery of the formless realms. However, as Bill Hamilton once said, if you are an anagami or arahat, you are bound to run into Nirodha Samapatti eventually. There are some reasons to question whether or not those of the lower stages of awakening might be able to attain this, or how the ability to attain this relates to the number of stages of awakening. However, this is not a subject that I am in a mood to pursue in detail, as I have learned the hard way that such questions do not help in the end. If you manage to attain Nirodha, I wouldn’t fixate on the idea that you have attained at least third path. That said, with a few months of careful work and focused intent, I was able to attain it after completing my third cycle of insight.

One attains Nirodha by fusing insight practices and concentration practices in a fairly gentle way that is much less focused and precise than one would do if one wanted to attain Fruition. I find it easiest to attain when reclining, but the first time I attained it I was sitting. There is nothing that can really be said about this attainment, except for mentioning things about the entrance, exit, and the consequences of the attainment. One rises through the samatha jhanas in a very low-key fashion with some weak awareness of their true nature (the Three Characteristics), enters the eighth jhana (neither perception nor yet non-perception), and then emerges from that state. Sometime shortly thereafter, and without warning or very recent premeditation, one may suddenly enter the cessation of perception and feeling. It must be noted that previous interest in attaining this during the preceding days or weeks tends to increase the chances of this attainment showing up. As one gets better at attaining this, one can slip in the inclination (resolution) to attain it after emerging from the eighth jhana and then forget about it before dropping in.

As my dear old meditation friend Kenneth so rightly points out, between the eighth jhana and Nirodha there are a number of states very worth mentioning, thought the standard texts strangely don’t for reasons I can’t fathom. We have come to call them Pure Land One and Pure Land Two, as this seemed as good a thing to call them as anything, thus making a total of ten jhanas and Nirodha. Both have as their overwhelming quality the feeling of deep gratitude in the purest and most profound sense, with Pure Land Two being a deepening and strengthening of Pure Land One, though it is also a bit wider and more diffuse. These are remarkably healing, complete, pervasive, satisfying and heartfelt states, and the word “pure” applies quite nicely. Early on I barely noticed them and would jump as fast as I could from the eighth jhana to Nirodha. Now I know better and take the time to enjoy them. They write gratitude, beauty, clarity, and contentment onto the mind.

There is also a state somewhere in that territory that seems basically like pure presence, like being a super-pervading Watcher, with the quality of perceiving or awareness itself being the dominant quality. This has a very different quality from the sixth jhana, Boundless Consciousness, and in my opinion is far superior, more fundamental, and could be argued as the highest of the states that involve experience. However, the fact that states that are so clear to me continue to show up that were never described in the old texts so far as I can tell brings up another important point: the territory out there past the fourth jhana and particularly the eighth jhana is very malleable. Kenneth and I have speculated that the limits to the states attainable out there are limited by our imagination and concentration skill only, and I have imagined staging a friendly contest among high-level practitioners to dream up states that are even better than the ones I know so that we can play around with attaining them and seeing if there are any limits to the thing. The large list of all the exotic heaven realms found in the old texts adds credence to this belief. I realize this may seem like a contradiction to earlier statements I have made about being able to master concentration practices absolutely. It is. Back to describing Nirodha…

The texts rightly say that, on the entrance to Nirodha, verbal formations cease first, then bodily sensations, then the whole of mental functioning ceases when the attainment is finally entered. This is traditionally explained as correlating to the first jhana, fourth jhana and then the entrance into Nirodha respectively. However, it may be noticed that in the three moments before cessation of perception sets in (during the complete power failure-like entrance) the verbal formations, bodily formations and mental formations cease in that order also in three consecutive and definable moments, with the whole thing taking about a third of a second. Thus, the texts may have a double meaning, or were misinterpreted by scholars who had not ever attained Nirodha Samapatti. I say this because it is still typical for many bodily and verbal formations to arise between the eighth jhana the entrance to Nirodha, and thus the traditional interpretation does not hold up.

The texts also say that this attainment may last seven days or even longer, but I don’t personally know of anyone who has admitted to having this happen. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen, but would probably require a long and sustained retreat before hand. The duration of such attainments will be related directly to one’s concentration abilities, and these are very dependent upon local practice conditions and the amount that they have recently been exercised.

Unlike Fruition, one exits this attainment in the reverse of the way one came in, with mental formations arising first, quickly followed by physical and then verbal formations in the characteristic analogue way of the entrance and with the same timing. After leaving this attainment, the mind tends to be deeply peaceful and very clear, and one’s body tends to be very relaxed. The longer the attainment lasted, the stronger and more durable this effect will be. Thus, I would not recommend attaining this immediately before entering into situations that require high-speed decisions or actions. The texts say that one inclines to solitude or quiet after attaining this state, and in general I agree.

I mention this attainment because it is one more of those things that is found today but has often been relegated to the realm of myth and legend or has been forgotten entirely. It is not that Nirodha is necessary, but it definitely is a good and useful thing to be able to attain. In fact, I have not yet spoken with anyone who had attained it who didn’t consider it among the absolute King Daddy of meditation attainments other than arahatship, as the depth of its afterglow never fails to impress and amaze. Hopefully, mentioning it will raise the standard to which people feel they can reasonably aspire, which is basically the whole goal of this book.

One more little morsel for you brave adventurers… I have noticed that the easiest time to attain Nirodha is usually a few weeks after attaining a path, when the vipassana jhana aspect of the progress of insight is becoming clear and a nice degree of mastery has been attained in that Review phase. However, it has this nice/nasty habit of helping to precipitate a new progress cycle, as the level of clarity gained in its wake is impressive. Thus, one may go from the best highs of a Review phase and Nirodha’s glorious afterglow to the third ñana, A&P and the Dark Night quickly. In fact, this seems to be a very natural part of the many cycles of anagamis who also know the samatha jhanas and formless realms.

Best of luck and practice well,