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MCTB Neither Perception Nor Yet Non-Perception, The Eighth Jhana

If the meditator wishes to attain the next jhana, they simply hang out in nothingness until they get bored with perception entirely and understand that even perception is somehow disconcerting. Thus, the mind will eventually shift on its own to the state with the perplexing but thoroughly appropriate title of “neither perception nor yet non-perception,” hereafter “the eighth jhana” for the sake of brevity.

This state is largely incomprehensible, but it is absolutely not emptiness. It is empty, but this is not the attainment of that understanding. The eighth jhana may very easily be confused as being emptiness, especially if it is attained through insight practices (remember that insight practices can simultaneously cultivate concentration and wisdom). There is no reasonable way to attempt to describe this state, save for that it is a mind state, and thus is not emptiness, as emptiness is not a mind state or anything else for that matter. I am tempted to say that one is simultaneously focused so narrowly that one notices nothing and yet so broadly that one doesn’t notice even that, but such a description doesn’t quite do this state justice. One way or the other, there is complete inattention to diversity. The eighth jhana is the highest of the ordinary states of concentration that can be attained, ignoring the attainment of the cessation of perception and feeling and a few other attainments mentioned there. (See the Appendix.)

It is not possible to investigate this state, as it is too incomprehensible. Thus, as this state ends, the meditator may return to lower states or turn to insight practice in the afterglow of this state. It should also be noted that, in contrast to the previous seven jhanas, the issue of “hard” or “soft” jhana that relates to how solidly one is in a state does not apply to the eighth jhana. You are either in it or you are not.

The eighth jhana may have a certain stability that nothingness doesn’t due to the inability to make sense of it. Thus, the mind may move fairly quickly from boundless consciousness, through nothingness, and drop into the eighth jhana for a while, though the vaguest hint of attention to anything specific demolishes this state instantly. It is also possible to sort of drift up and down through the various formless realms, and shifting back down to lower jhanas after being up in higher jhanas such as this one can lend a great deal of intensity to them. There are some higher jhanas that can be attained by beings with moderate to high levels of realization, and I will discuss these in the Appendix, but for the moment and for most people, the listing of the eight jhanas is a good working model.

The eighth jhana can be sorted out from the attainment of emptiness by a number of signs having to do with the way the entrance to the state presents itself (i.e. not being one of “the Three Doors” – see later chapter – and thus not relating to the rapid and clear presentation of one of the Three Characteristics three or four times in quick succession), what came before this (i.e. not the stages of insight, see below) and the fact that there is still some subtle sense of a state and thus relative reality.

Just to drive this point home, an important feature of concentration practices is that they are not liberating in and of themselves. Even the highest of these states ends. The afterglow from them does not last that long, and regular reality might even seem like a bit of an assault when it is gone. However, jhana-junkies still abound, and many have no idea that this is what they have become. I have a good friend who has been lost in the formless realms for over twenty years, attaining them again and again in his practice, rationalizing that he is doing dzogchen practice (a type of insight practice) when he is just sitting between the fourth and sixth jhanas, rationalizing that the last two formless realms are emptiness, and rationalizing that he is enlightened. It is a true dharma tragedy.

Unfortunately, as another good friend of mine rightly pointed out, it is very hard to reach such people after a while. They get tangled in golden chains so beautiful that they have no idea they are even in prison, nor do they tend to take kindly to suggestions that this may be so, particularly if their identity has become bound up in their false notion that they are a realized being. Chronic jhana-junkies are fairly easy to identify, even though they often imagine that they are not. I have no problem with people becoming jhana-junkies, as we are all presumably able to take responsibility for our choices in life. However, when people don’t realize that this is what they have become and pretend that what they are doing has something to do with insight practices, that’s annoying and sad.

To try to differentiate clearly between concentration practice and insight practice, I will now give a detailed description of the stages of insight so that the contrast will be as clear as possible. Pay careful attention to how different these descriptions are from those of the pure concentration states.

MCTB The Progress of Insight