The Dawn of the DhammaSucitto Bhikkhu

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Chapter 21

Formless Rapture

… brahmakayika deva saddamanussavesum … kenaci va lokasmin ti.
… the devas of the retinue of the Brahma deities took up the cry: “At Varanasi in the
Deer Park at Isipatana, the matchless Wheel of Dhamma has been set rolling by the
Blessed One, not to be stopped by any samana, or brahmin, or deva, or mara, or brahma,
or anyone in the world.”

By the time we reach this realm, we are at the Brahmakayika devaloka. The Brahmakayika devas are the assembly of devas who attend the Brahma deities. They occupy the first level of the next “world”—the world of the Brahma. The beings in the brahmaloka have no sense desire, and a form that is more refined than that of the Six Realms. They have also a correspondingly long life span. They have attained this state of being through the development of absorptive meditation and loving-kindness. The Brahmakayika devas live in a state of devotion to what seems eternal and lofty. All of the devata experience happiness and bliss, but the higher the devaloka, the more refined the object as well as its resulting pleasure. Here, the object is formless, indefinite. In the realm of the Brahma gods, form is tenuous; yet these realms are also impermanent and subject to becoming and illusions of selfhood.

This realm is equivalent to the mind that enters into a state of very steady happiness born of faith without investigation. This happiness is an oceanic sense of oneness with, and trust in the benevolence of, the universe. Despite the fundamental goodness of this realm, it is subject to delusion. The mind goes to sleep. The object of one’s faith—whether it be called God, the Tao, the Dhamma, the One, Ultimate Truth—is conceived in sufficiently remote and indefinable terms to be beyond investigation. It’s beyond good and bad or any other definition; this has an element of truth—even Awakened Ones say that Ultimate Truth is beyond designations. With no ill-effects at first, the mind can slip into attitudes that lack discernment: “It’s all Dhamma,” we think—and lose our sense of direction. There’s only the inclination to stay in a state of oneness and rapture for as long as possible, and avoid the more abrasive energies of the sense realms.

Yet the trials and pulls of the sense realms highlight the self-view and the liberation that is realized through abandoning it. Hence the Way of practice is outlined time and time again in ways that are tangible. The Buddha kept his frames of reference linked to states that did not fascinate the mind or act as soporifics.

But whatever are the states of which you, Gotami, may know, these states lead to passionlessness, not to passion … absence of bondage, not to bondage … absence of accumulation, not to accumulation … wanting little, not wanting much … contentment, not dissatisfaction … solitude, not sociability … putting forth of energy, not to indolence … ease in supporting oneself, not to difficulty in supporting oneself; you should know definitely, Gotami, this is Dhamma, this is discipline, this is the Teacher’s instruction. (Vinaya, Culavagga: [X])

These were the words on Dhamma that the Buddha addressed to the first nun, Mahapajapati Gotami (his stepmother and aunt, no less). Applying this reflection within her practice, she also realized Nibbana.

But the Brahma deities have not realized Nibbana. The mind states that determine their existence lack insight and wisdom. Being too deeply absorbed into their own existence, they cannot reflect upon or know the way things are.

In Sutta 11 of the Digha Nikaya (Kevaddha Sutta), a question arises in the mind of a meditating bhikkhu as to where the four elements cease. In other words, where is the place beyond all phenomena? He travels, presumably through psychic power, to various celestial realms and is continually advised to seek his answer in a higher abode. Eventually, he comes into the presence of the Great Brahma (which is only the third of the twenty brahma realms, but probably as high up as allows communication!). However, the Great Brahma, surrounded by devotees, can only respond to the question by extolling his own magnificence. When questioned for the third time, the Great Brahma takes the bhikkhu aside and says he doesn’t know but can’t admit that in the presence of the retinue. And Brahma then admonishes the bhikkhu for seeking an answer to such a question from anyone but the Buddha. The Buddha, of course, puts the bhikkhu right by saying that the question is really: Where do the four elements not get established? The answer is that they do not stick in the mind of someone who has no wish to attach to any mode of existence. When consciousness is in the “rest state” of “cessation” the intentions and perceptions that define experience are not created:

Where consciousness is signless, boundless, all-luminous,
That’s where earth, water, fire and air find no footing.
There both long and short, small and great, fair and foul—
There ‘name-and-form’ are wholly destroyed.
With the cessation of consciousness, this is all destroyed.
(Walshe, trans.)

That’s what Brahmas don’t know, because they are attached to their refined state of being.

Great Brahma

Fascination with “special” energies, auras and refined powers of the mind makes you feel special and consequently, you invest a lot of interest and significance in those states. Then you find kinship with other special people who are attuned to that level, and, consciously or not, the kinship reinforces your specialness. So you get stuck in a self-view as big as Mount Meru. You don’t want to let go of it and see it as just another condition because it’s uplifting to be special and fascinating. Surely, enlightened beings must be special and fascinating? No, enlightened beings are the only totally ordinary beings. Everyone else is special in some way or another, with their unique special problems and sensitivities. Enlightened beings are those who realize Ultimate Truth as totally ordinary—as the way it is. However much they demonstrate and praise the qualities of wisdom, they don’t think of themselves as anything in personal terms.

The wise man does not rate himself with the distinguished, the lowest, nor with ordinary people; calm and unselfish, he is free from possessiveness: he holds onto nothing and he rejects nothing. (Sutta Nipata: 954; Saddhatissa trans.)

The Buddha didn’t even bother to refer to himself as a person at all. When questioned as to who he was; deva, brahma or human, he refuted them all and said, “I am Awake.” The quality of Awakeness is brought to the foreground, and the personal form not mentioned. The Buddha constantly notes: “But I did not let the pleasure that came from this realization take over my mind.”

That is the great difference between the bliss of Awakening and the brahmaloka. The Brahma gods are always affirming their identity and lingering in the bliss of their sphere. The mind loses its discernment and sense of investigation, and the bliss is worshipped in its own right. People love these high states of mind, tend to idolize them, and idolize beings who attain them. But notice in the picture that the Dhamma Wheel has almost disappeared; it’s a vague glow and there’s a strange mudra in the center of the glow that has become a meaningless gesture.

I equate this image with the worship of an Ultimate Being which places the experience of the Ultimate beyond the possibility of personal realization. One can have some experience of the bliss of not being involved with the sense realm from this calm, or simply by believing in this heavenly being, but it limits the direct experience or investigation of Dhamma. So the bliss of the Brahmas is one akin to suspended animation rather than transcendence through penetration of the sense realm. In the long run, the good kamma that keeps the Brahma afloat runs out. Unresolved attachments begin to have their effect, because they have not been transformed through insight into not-self. In formless rapture, we lose spiritual definition to the extent where even morality and reason become secondary to the experience of being with the Great Brahma.

The brahmaloka are easy to fake also, because they do not allow any criteria outside of their realm to be brought to bear. They support an attitude of unquestioning devotion. That attitude has an attraction but it means we can be unquestioningly devoted to some fake Brahmas. The so-called Transcendent One may even transcend loftiness: “It’s all Dhamma, sleeping Buddhas, fighting Buddhas, drinking beer and watching T.V. Buddhas.” That’s the interpretation of the formless realms that the unawakened mind can make. We seek out the refined pleasure, but neglect the skillful actions that give rise to those refined states of being.

Those people who make an identity out of refined levels of consciousness are apt to use that sense of being the Great Brahma, the Bodhisattva, the next Buddha and the rest of it for corrupt ends. When this happens, as can be noted in several contemporary cases, self-view keeps justifying the indulgence. The burden of self-view is like a lead weight, and, if left unchecked, it can drag one’s consciousness down to the realms of Hell, generally with a few fascinated disciples in tow.

Devotion takes many forms, some of them refined and some coarse. I’ve seen people get into devotional highs over football teams. However, whether it’s high or low, devotion without investigation produces a rapturous energy in the mind of the devotee, but not much else.

And investigation without devotion falls short of the full appreciation of Dhamma. Instead of that wholehearted knowing that unifies heart and mind, without devotion we cultivate an intellectual analysis of conditioned phenomena—the structure of the world and the self. Some aspect of our mind is always standing apart; the result is a lack of heart—and a “self” acting as an onlooker. Even dedicated insight meditators get stuck at this arid level—and may suddenly abandon their decade of practice to sit at the feet of a guru who offers great presence and expects complete surrender to his will. To go beyond the pitfalls of the absence, or misdirection, of devotion, we have to abandon our intellectual detached stance, and leap, in faith, not to a person but into the center of the apparent world. With insight, devotion helps us open to conditions and stop hanging onto our perceptions, and can take us beyond our self-view. Without devotion, we remain on the sidelines of Truth; if devotion is fettered by ignorance, it breeds attachment to objects of faith—special people, rituals, hobbies—even football teams.

The wise use of devotion is not to form or formlessness, or any level of sensual or non-sensual becoming. These are the shortfalls of the devata mentality. But when faith is balanced by wisdom and concentration is balanced by energy, and when that balance is preserved by mindfulness, our insightful knowing can penetrate the changing and unsatisfactory nature of appearances and not seek to gain, become or annihilate anything. Then a fortunate fruition of the spiritual faculties takes place:

When these five faculties are maintained in being and developed, they merge in the Deathless, reach to the Deathless and end in the Deathless. (Samyutta Nikaya: [V], Faculties, VI, 7)

The Buddha, as the teacher and human exemplar of enlightenment, is a catalyst for our faith, but the giving of ourselves is to the Dhamma that we can experience through this body and mind. Complete cultivation sustained through body, speech and mind is the supreme devotion.

Whatever monk, nun, male or female lay-follower dwells practicing the Dhamma properly, and perfectly fulfills the Dhamma-way, he or she honors the Tathagata, reveres and esteems him and pays him the supreme homage. (Mahaparinibbana Sutta; Digha Nikaya: Sutta 16)

To make that offering, we have to return to where we are, seeing it no longer as self and the world, but as the realm of Dhamma.