abhijñā (P. abhiññā; T. mngon shes མངོན་ཤེས་; C. shentong 神通) refers to "a set of supernormal powers that are by-products of meditation." This term is translated as "superknowledges," "direct knowledge", "higher knowledge," "supernormal knowledge," etc.
A common list of six types of abhijñā identifies five types of mundane powers that are attained through concentration (samadhi) and one type of supramundane power that is attained through insight (vipassana).
A set of six supernormal powers is commonly enumerated. These are:
- "psychic supranormal powers" (ṛddhividhābhijñā), such as walking on water, walking through solid objects, etc.
- "divine eye" (divyacakṣus) - the ability to see from afar and to see the karmic results of the actions of an individual
- "divine ear" (divyaśrotra) - the ability to hear from afar
- "ability to remember one's form lives" (pūrvanivāsānusmṛti)
- "mind-penetrating knowledge" (Skt. paracittajñāna; P. ceto-pariya-ñāṇa) - knowledge of others' states of mind
- "knowledge of extinction of the contaminants" (āsravakṣaya)
The first five powers listed above are mundane powers, and the sixth is a supramundane power.
Five mundane powers
The first five powers listed above are mundane powers which are attained through meditative concentration (samadhi). Speficially they are attained through further refinement of the fourth stage of meditative absorption (dhyana), following the attainment of the four dhyanas.
These powers can be attained by Buddhists or non-Buddhists, and they do not indicate that one is enlightened.
Encyclopedia Britannica states:
- The first five abhijnas enumerated in Buddhism are identical with the siddhis (miraculous powers) known to Indian ascetics in general. Patanjali, for example, mentions them in his Yoga-sutra (the classical exposition of Yoga) as magical virtues of meditation.
Great Disciples of the Buddha states:
- These faculties may be found outside the Buddha’s Dispensation, among mystics and yogis who have mastered meditative absorption, and their attainment does not certify that their possessor has reached a state of true sanctity. They are neither requirements for nor indications of liberation.
The Buddha cautioned his disciples against becoming distracted by these mundane powers or displaying them in public.
The supramundane power
This power is the ultimate goal of Buddhism, which is the elimination of all ignorance, leading to cessation of suffering.
The "three knowledges"
Three of the above powers (the second, fourth and sixth) are identified distinctly as the "three knowledges" (trividyā) which are described as being attained by the Buddha during the "three watches of the night" at the time of his enlightenment.
Great Disciples of the Buddha states:
- In the eyes of its early Western interpreters, many of whom saw in Buddhism a rational alternative to Christian dogmatism, Buddhism was essentially a pragmatic code of psychological ethics free from the traditional trappings of religion. In their understanding the suprarational side of Buddhism was dispensable, and the wonders and marvels so conspicuous in the canon and commentaries, when not overlooked, were explained away as later interpolations. But while it is true that early Buddhism does not ascribe the same significance to supernatural events as does Christianity, to insist on expunging the miraculous altogether from Buddhism is to tailor the Dhamma to fit external standards rather than to accept it on its own terms. The Pāli suttas, as a matter of course, frequently ascribe supernormal powers to the Buddha and his arahant disciples, and there is little ground apart from personal prejudice for supposing such passages to be interpolations. Although the Buddha compares the miracle of psychic powers unfavorably with “the miracle of instruction,” he does so not to detract from their reality but only to highlight their limited value. Nevertheless, when the suttas are considered in their totality, the clear conclusion emerges that the acquisition of paranormal powers was regarded as a positive good which serves to enhance the stature and completeness of the spiritually accomplished person.
- The suttas frequently mention a set of six paranormal faculties —called the six superknowledges (chaḷabhiññā)—which were possessed by many arahants. The sixth of these, the knowledge of the destruction of the cankers (āsavakkhaya- ñāṇa), is the supramundane realization that all defilements have been eradicated and can never arise again; this knowledge is shared by all arahants, being their guarantee of final deliverance. The other five kinds of superknowledge, however, are all mundane. They include the knowledge of the modes of psychic power (iddhividha-ñāṇa), the knowledge of the divine ear-element (dibbasotadhātu-ñāṇa), the knowledge encompassing the minds of others (cetopariya-ñāṇa), the knowledge of recollection of past lives (pubbe-nivāsānussati- ñāṇa), and the divine eye, or the knowledge of the passing away and rebirth of beings (dibbacakkhu, cutūpāta-ñāṇa). These faculties may be found outside the Buddha’s Dispensation, among mystics and yogis who have mastered meditative absorption, and their attainment does not certify that their possessor has reached a state of true sanctity. They are neither requirements for nor indications of liberation. In the Buddhist texts even Devadatta, the most evil of the monks, had acquired such powers early in his spiritual career and lost them only when he tried to use them against the Buddha.
- The Buddha was well aware of the dangers of being sidetracked by a fascination with psychic powers. For those whose minds were still fired by personal ambition, they could be a frightful pitfall, serving to enhance the delusion of separate selfhood and the drive for domination. But for those who had seen through the unreality of “I” and “mine” and whose hearts were rich in compassion, such powers could be valuable tools in the service of the Dispensation. Hence the Buddha includes the five mundane superknowledges among “the fruits of recluseship” in which his system of mental training culminates (DN 2), and he also counts them among the benefits that come from the observance of the precepts (MN 6). He declares that he himself had totally mastered the bases of psychic power, by reason of which, if he had so wished, he could have lived on until the end of the aeon (DN 2; SN 51:10). For the first generation of monks after the Buddha’s Parinibbāna the five superknowledges were also given high regard, being included among “the ten qualities that inspire confidence” which the orphaned Sangha, deprived of its Master, used as its criteria for choosing its spiritual guides (MN 108).
- While the sixth superknowledge, the knowledge of the destruction of the defilements, is the fruit of insight, the five mundane superknowledges result from concentration. In the suttas the Buddha usually introduces them only after he has explained the four jhānas. The jhānas are the prerequisite for the superknowledges because they transform the tone and clarity of consciousness in ways that open up the channels through which such knowledges become accessible. In its undeveloped condition the mind is soiled by defiled thoughts and moods, which cloud its intrinsic luminosity, drain its potency, and make it rigid and unworkable. But by systematic training in the practice of the four jhānas the mind is cleansed and purified. When it becomes “bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, malleable, wieldy, steady, and imperturbable” (DN 2), it can then function as a mighty instrument capable of uncovering domains of knowledge normally concealed from us by impenetrable screens. Those who have gained access to those hidden dimensions, like the Buddha and Moggallāna, will realize a vast extension of their experience in space and time. Their horizons will grow universal and immeasurable, transcending all boundaries and limitations.
- The Buddha particularly stresses a set of practices called “the four roads to power” (iddhipāda, or “bases of success”) as the means to winning the superknowledges.
The attainment of these six higher powers is mentioned in a number of discourses, including:
- Samaññaphala Sutta (DN 2), "Fruits of Contemplative Life Discourse"
- Kevatta Sutta (DN 11)
- Lohicca Sutta (DN 12)
- Mahasakuludayi Sutta (MN 77)
- superknowledges (Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism; Buddhist Dictionary)
- direct knowledge (Bodhi 2000)
- higher knowledge (Rhys Davids & Stede)
- higher powers (Buddhist Dictionary)
- supernormal knowledge (Rhys Davids & Stede; Nyanaponika Thera & Hecker 2012)
- supernatural knowledge (Encyclopedia Britannica)
- supercognitions (Rigpa wiki)
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "abhijna". Encyclopedia Britannica, 10 Mar. 2005, https://www.britannica.com/topic/abhijna. Accessed 15 April 2022.
- Buswell, Robert E.; Lopez, Donald S. (2014), The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, Princeton University
- Nyanaponika Thera; Hecker, Hellmuth (2003), Great Disciples of the Buddha: Their Lives, Their Works, Their Legacy (PDF), Wisdom Publications
- Nyanatiloka Thera (2019), Nyanaponika Thera, ed., Buddhist Dictionary: Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines, Pariyatti Publishing
- Bodhi, Bhikkhu (trans.) (2000). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-331-1.
- Rhys Davids, T.W. & William Stede (eds.) (1921-5). "Abhiññā" in The Pali Text Society’s Pali–English Dictionary. Chipstead: Pali Text Society.
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (1997). Samaññaphala Sutta: The Fruits of the Contemplative Life (DN 2). Retrieved 2007-05-18 from: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.02.0.than.html.