Abhijña (Pali, abhiñña; higher knowledge) refers to a stereotyped set of typically six spiritual powers ascribed to buddhas and their chief disciples.
The first five are mundane and attainable through the perfection of concentration (samadhi) in meditative trance (dhyana; Pali, jhana).
As earthly attainments, they are deemed available to non-Buddhist sages.
In contrast, the sixth higher knowledge is supramundane and exclusively Buddhist, and attainable only through insight (vipasyana; Pali, vipassana) into the Buddhist truths.
• The divine eye (divyacaksus; Pali, dibbacakkhu), or the ability to see the demise and rebirth of beings according to their good and evil deeds;
• The divine ear (divya´srota; Pali, dibbasota), the ability to hear heavenly and earthly sounds far and near;
• Knowledge of other minds (cetah paryayajñana; Pali, cetopariyañana), the ability to know the thoughts and mental states of others;
• Recollection of previous habitations (purvanivasanusmti; Pali pubbenivasanusati), the ability to remember one’s former existences from one to thousands of rebirths, through the evolution and destruction of many world systems;
• Various supernatural powers (rddhi; Pali, iddhi), such as
In the MAHAPARINIRVANA-SUTRA (Pali, Mahaparinibbana-sutta; Great Discourse on the Parinirvana), the Buddha tells his disciple ANANDA that one who perfects the four bases of supernatural power (rddhipada; Pali, iddhipada) can live for an entire eon, or for the remaining portion of an eon should he so desire.
The sixth and only supramundane abhijña is the most important.
Called “knowledge of the extinction of the passions” (asravaksaya; Pali, asavakkhaya), it is equivalent to arhatship.
The passions extinguished through this knowledge are sensuality (kama), becoming (bhava), ignorance (avidya; Pali, avijja), and views (drsti; Pali, ditthi).
Historically, the six abhijñas can be seen as an elaboration of an earlier Buddhist paradigm of human perfection called the “three knowledges” (traividya; Pali, tevijja).
Comprised of the recollection of former habitations, the divine eye, and knowledge of the extinction of the passions, the three knowledges form the content of the Buddha’s awakening in early canonical depictions of his enlightenment experience.
Although mastery of the six abhijñas is an attribute of all perfect buddhas, the early Buddhist tradition was ambivalent toward the display of supernatural powers by members of the monastic order.
In the Kevaddhasutta (Discourse to Kevaddha), the Buddha disparages as vulgar those monks who would reveal such powers to the laity, and in the VINAYA or monastic code, he makes it an offense for them to do so.
Despite these strictures, wonder-working saints were lionized in the literatures of all Buddhist schools, and they became
the focus of numerous ARHAT cults, such as those devoted to the worship of the disciples UPAGUPTA and MAHAKASYAPA.
The MAHAYANA tradition elaborated upon the abhijñas and rddhis of early Buddhism in its depictions of the attainments of celestial bodhisattvas and cosmic buddhas.
In Buddhist TANTRA, these same powers became the model for a host of magical abilities called siddhis possessed by tantric masters and displayed as signs of their spiritual perfection.
See also: Dhyana (Trance State); Meditation; Vipassana (Sanskrit, Vipasyana)
Buddhaghosa. The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), tr. Bhikkhu Nyanamoli. Berkeley, CA: Shambhala, 1964.
Katz, Nathan. Buddhist Images of Human Perfection: The Arahant of the Sutta Pitaka Compared with the Bodhisattva and the Mahasiddha. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1982.
Ray, Reginald A. Buddhist Saints in India: A Study in Buddhist Values and Orientations. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
PATRICK A. PRANKE