Visuddhimagga (the pah of purification)
by Ñāṇamoli Bhikkhu | 1956 | 388,207 words | ISBN-10: 9552400236 | ISBN-13: 9789552400236
This page describes (4) The Base Consisting of Neither Perception nor Non-Perception of the section The Immaterial States (āruppa-niddesa) of Part 2 Concentration (Samādhi) of the English translation of the Visuddhimagga (‘the path of purification’) which represents a detailled Buddhist meditation manual, covering all the essential teachings of Buddha as taught in the Pali Tipitaka. It was compiled Buddhaghosa around the 5th Century.
(4) The Base Consisting of Neither Perception nor Non-Perception
40. When, however, he wants to develop the base consisting of neither perception nor non-perception, he must first achieve mastery in the five ways in the attainment of the base consisting of nothingness. Then he should see the danger in the base consisting of nothingness and the advantage in what is superior to it in this way: “This attainment has the base consisting of boundless consciousness as its near enemy, and it is not as peaceful as the base consisting of neither perception nor non-perception,” or in this way: “Perception is a boil, perception is a dart … this is peaceful, this is sublime, that is to say, neither perception nor non-perception” (M II 231). So having ended his attachment to the base consisting of nothingness, he should give attention to the base consisting of neither perception non non-perception as peaceful. He should advert again and again to that attainment of the base consisting of nothingness that has occurred making non-existence its object, adverting to it as “peaceful, peaceful,” and he should give his attention to it, review it and strike at it with thought and applied thought.
41. As he directs his mind again and again on to that sign in this way, the hindrances are suppressed, mindfulness is established, and his mind becomes concentrated in access. He cultivates that sign again and again, develops and repeatedly practices it. As he does so, consciousness belonging to the base consisting of neither perception nor non-perception arises in absorption making its object the four [mental] aggregates that constitute the attainment of the base consisting of nothingness, just as the [consciousness belonging to the] base consisting of nothingness did the disappearance of the [previous] consciousness. And here too the method of explaining the absorption should be understood in the way already described.
[Text and Commentary]
42. And at this point it is said: “By completely surmounting the base consisting of nothingness he enters upon and dwells in the base consisting of neither perception nor non-perception” (Vibh 245).
43. Herein, completely is already explained. By … surmounting the base consisting of nothingness: here too the jhāna is called the “base consisting of nothingness” in the way already stated, and its object is so called too. For the object too is “nothingness” (ākiñcaññaṃ) in the way already stated, and then because it is the object of the third immaterial jhāna, it is its “base” in the sense of habitat, as the “deities’ base” is for deities, thus it is the “base consisting of nothingness.” Likewise: it is “nothingness,” and then, because it is the cause of the jhāna’s being of that species, it is its “base” in the sense of locality of the species, as Kambojā is the “base” of horses, thus it is the “base consisting of nothingness” in this way also.  So it should be understood that the words, “By … surmounting the base consisting of nothingness” include both [the jhāna and its object] together, since the base consisting of neither perception nor nonperception is to be entered upon and dwelt in precisely by surmounting, by causing the non-occurrence of, by not giving attention to, both the jhāna and its object.
44. Base consisting of neither perception nor non-perception: then there is he who so practices that there is in him the perception on account of the presence of which this [attainment] is called the “the base consisting of neither perception nor non-perception,” and in the Vibhaṅga, in order to point out that [person], firstly one specified as “neither percipient nor non-percipient,” it is said, “gives attention to that same base consisting of nothingness as peaceful, he develops the attainment with residual formations, hence ‘neither percipient nor nonpercipient’ is said” (Vibh 263).
45. Herein, he gives attention … as peaceful, means that he gives attention to it as “peaceful” because of the peacefulness of the object thus: “How peaceful this attainment is; for it can make even non-existence its object and still subsist!”
If he brings it to mind as “peaceful” then how does there come to be surmounting? Because there is no actual desire to attain it. For although he gives attention to it as “peaceful,” yet there is no concern in him or reaction or attention such as “I shall advert to this” or “I shall attain this” or “I shall resolve upon [the duration of] this.” Why not? Because the base consisting of neither perception nor non-perception is more peaceful and better than the base consisting of nothingness.
46. Suppose a king is proceeding along a city street with the great pomp of royalty, splendidly mounted on the back of an elephant, and he sees craftsmen wearing one cloth tightly as a loin-cloth and another tied round their heads, working at the various crafts such as ivory carving, etc., their limbs covered with ivory dust, etc.; now while he is pleased with their skill, thinking, “How skilled these craft-masters are, and what crafts they practice!” he does not, however, think, “Oh that I might abandon royalty and become a craftsman like that!” Why not? Because of the great benefits in the majesty of kings; he leaves the craftsmen behind and proceeds on his way. So too, though this [meditator] gives attention to that attainment as “peaceful,” yet there is no concern in him or reaction or attention such as “I shall advert to this attainment” or “I shall attain this” or “I shall resolve upon [the duration of] it” or “I shall emerge from it” or “I shall review it.”
47. As he gives attention to it as “peaceful” in the way already described,  he reaches the ultra-subtle absorbed perception in virtue of which he is called “neither percipient nor non-percipient,” and it is said of him that “He develops the attainment with residual formations.”
The attainment with residual formations is the fourth immaterial attainment whose formations have reached a state of extreme subtlety.
48. Now, in order to show the meaning of the kind of perception that has been reached, on account of which [this jhāna] is called the “base consisting of neither perception nor non-perception,” it is said: “‘Base consisting of neither perception nor non-perception’: states of consciousness or its concomitants in one who has attained the base consisting of neither perception nor non-perception or in one who has been reborn there or in one who is abiding in bliss there in this present life” (Vibh 263). Of these, what is intended here is the states of consciousness and its concomitants in one who has attained.
49. The word meaning here is this: that jhāna with its associated states neither has perception nor has no perception because of the absence of gross perception and the presence of subtle perception, thus it is “neither perception nor nonperception” (n’ eva-saññā-nāsaññaṃ). It is “neither perception nor non-perception” and it is a “base” (āyatana) because it is included in the mind-base (manāyatana) and the mental-object base (dhammāyatana), thus it is the “base consisting of neither perception nor non-perception” (nevasaññānāsaññāyatana).
50. Or alternatively: the perception here is neither perception, since it is incapable of performing the decisive function of perception, nor yet nonperception, since it is present in a subtle state as a residual formation, thus it is “neither perception nor non-perception.” It is “neither perception nor nonperception” and it is a “base” in the sense of a foundation for the other states, thus it is the “base consisting of neither perception nor non-perception.”
And here it is not only perception that is like this, but feeling as well is neither-feeling-nor-non-feeling, consciousness is neither-consciousness-nornon-consciousness, and contact is neither-contact-nor-non-contact, and the same description applies to the rest of the associated states; but it should be understood that this presentation is given in terms of perception.
51. And the meaning should be illustrated by the similes beginning with the smearing of oil on the bowl. A novice smeared a bowl with oil, it seems, and laid it aside. When it was time to drink gruel, an elder told him to bring the bowl. He said, “Venerable sir, there is oil in the bowl.” But then when he was told, “Bring the oil, novice, I shall fill the oil tube,” he replied, “There is no oil, venerable sir.” Herein, just as “There is oil” is in the sense of incompatibility with the gruel because it has been poured into [the bowl] and just as “There is no oil” is in the sense of filling the oil tube, etc., so too this perception is “neither perception” since it is incapable of performing the decisive function of perception and it is “nor nonperception” because it is present in a subtle form as a residual formation. 
52. But in this context what is perception’s function? It is the perceiving of the object, and it is the production of dispassion if [that attainment and its object are] made the objective field of insight. But it is not able to make the function of perceiving decisive, as the heat element in tepid water is not able to make the function of burning decisive; and it is not able to produce dispassion by treatment of its objective field with insight in the way that perception is in the case of the other attainments.
53. There is in fact no bhikkhu capable of reaching dispassion by comprehension of aggregates connected with the base consisting of neither perception nor nonperception unless he has already done his interpreting with other aggregates (see XX.2f. and XXI.23). And furthermore, when the venerable Sāriputta, or someone very wise and naturally gifted with insight as he was, is able to do so, even he has to do it by means of comprehension of groups (XX.2) in this way, “So it seems, these states, not having been, come to be; having come to be, they vanish” (M III 28), and not by means of [actual direct] insight into states one by one as they arise. Such is the subtlety that this attainment reaches.
54. And this meaning should be illustrated by the simile of the water on the road, as it was by the simile of the oil-smearing on the bowl. A novice was walking in front of an elder, it seems, who had set out on a journey. He saw a little water and said, “There is water, venerable sir, remove your sandals.” Then the elder said, “If there is water, bring me the bathing cloth and let us bathe,” but the novice said, “There is none, venerable sir.” Herein, just as “There is water” is in the sense of mere wetting of the sandals, and “There is none” is in the sense of bathing, so too, this perception is “neither perception” since it is incapable of performing the decisive function of perception, and it is “nor non-perception” because it is present in a subtle form as a residual formation.
55. And this meaning should be illustrated not only by these similes but by other appropriate ones as well.
Enters upon and dwells in is already explained.
This is the detailed explanation of the base consisting of neither perception nor non-perception as a meditation subject.
Footnotes and references:
Mahacca (see D I 49 and D-a I 148); the form is not given in PED; probably a form of mahatiya.
Sukhodaka—“tepid water”: see Monier Williams’ Sanskrit Dictionary; this meaning of sukha not given in PED.