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Abhijñā (Sanskrit: अभिज्ञा; Pali pronunciation: abhiññā; Standard Tibetan: མངོན་ཤེས mngon shes ་; Chinese: 六通/(六)神通) is a Buddhist term generally translated as “direct knowledge”, “higher knowledge” or “supernormal knowledge.” In Buddhism, such special knowledge is obtained through virtuous living and meditation. The attainment of the four jhanas, or meditative absorptions, are considered a prerequisite for their attainment. In terms of specifically enumerated knowledges, these include mundane extra-sensory abilities (such as seeing past lives and various supranormal powers like levitation) as well as the supramundane, meaning the extinction of all mental intoxicants (āsava).
Direct knowing of dhamma
In SN 45.159, the Buddha describes “higher knowledge” (abhiññā) as a corollary to the pursuit of the Noble Eightfold Path:
[A] monk who cultivates the Noble Eightfold Path, who assiduously practices the Noble Eightfold Path, comprehends with higher knowledge those states that are to be so comprehended, abandons with higher knowledge those states that are to be so abandoned, comes to experience with higher knowledge those states that are to be so experienced, and cultivates with higher knowledge those states that are to be so cultivated.
What, monks, are the states to be comprehended with higher knowledge?
They are the five groups of clinging. Which five? The body-group, the feeling-group, the perception-group, the mental-formation group, the consciousness-group…
What, monks, are the states to be abandoned with higher knowledge?
They are ignorance and the desire for [further] becoming. And what, monks, are the states to be experienced with higher knowledge?
They are knowledge and liberation.
And what, monk, are the states to be cultivated with higher knowledge?
They are calm and insight.
Such direct knowledge, according to the Buddha, is obscured by desire and passion (chanda-rāga):
Monks, any desire-passion with regard to the eye is a defilement of the mind. Any desire-passion with regard to the ear… the nose… the tongue… the body… the intellect is a defilement of the mind. When, with regard to these six bases, the defilements of awareness are abandoned, then the mind is inclined to renunciation. The mind fostered by renunciation feels malleable for the direct knowing of those qualities worth realizing.
Enumerations of special knowledges
In the Pali Canon, the higher knowledges are often enumerated in a group of six or of three types of knowledge.
The six types of higher knowledges (chalabhiññā) are:
“Higher powers” (iddhi-vidhā), such as walking on water and through walls;
“Divine ear” (dibba-sota), that is, clairaudience;
“Mind-penetrating knowledge” (ceto-pariya-ñāṇa), that is, telepathy;
“Remember one’s former abodes” (pubbe-nivāsanussati), causal memory, that is, recalling one’s own past lives;
“Divine eye” (dibba-cakkhu), that is, knowing others’ karmic destinations; and,
“Extinction of mental intoxicants” (āsavakkhaya), upon which arahantship follows.
The attainment of these six higher powers is mentioned in a number of discourses, most famously the “Fruits of Contemplative Life Discourse” (Samaññaphala Sutta, DN 2). The attainment of the four jhanas is considered to be a prerequisite for the attainment of the higher powers. The sixth type is the ultimate goal of Buddhism, which is the end of all suffering and destruction of all ignorance. According to the Buddha, indulgence in the abhiññās should be avoided, as they can distract from the ultimate goal of Enlightenment.
Similarly, the three knowledges or wisdoms (tevijja or tivijja) are:
“Remember one’s former abodes” (pubbe-nivāsanussati);
“Divine eye” (dibba-cakkhu); and,
“Extinction of mental intoxicants” (āsavakkhaya).
The three knowledges are mentioned in numerous discourses including the Maha-Saccaka Sutta (MN 36) in which the Buddha describes obtaining each of these three knowledges on the first, second and third watches respectively of the night of his enlightenment. These forms of knowledge typically are listed as arising after the attainment of the fourth jhana.
While such powers are considered to be indicative of spiritual progress, Buddhism cautions against their indulgence or exhibition since such could divert one from the true path of obtaining suffering’s release.