A Cold Case? The Missing Mystery of The Breath Nimitta

Many years ago, Bhikkhu Sona penned an essay that outlined what he called the “mystery of the breath nimitta”. You’d better read it, or else none of this will make sense!

The breath nimitta was described in the 5th century meditation manual the Visuddhimagga as a subtle vision that appears to the meditator when their samādhi approaches absorption. This is a major influence on modern meditation teachers. This nimitta is, however, not mentioned in the Suttas. Sona argues that a close comparison between the various Theravadin meditation texts reveals that the idea of the visual breath nimitta essentially arose as a mistake, as the Visuddhimagga took similes from earlier texts and applied them as if they meant actual visions.

Now, this kind of essay is 100% catnip for me. It makes an actual argument, rather than just waffling vague pleasantries. And it does so based on genuine historical analysis, aiming to a conclusion that is genuinely useful for meditators. Awesome!

The great thing about an argument is that you can check if it’s right or wrong. It actually matters if the evidence adduced is correct or incorrect, and if the manner of argument is valid or invalid. Sona’s argument fails, I think, but it does so in interesting ways that make it worth taking a closer look.

Sona opens by saying “there is a significant puzzle to be solved”, and lays out his thesis thus:

a description of the mind of the jhanic meditator found in the Canon itself and quoted in the Paṭisambhidāmagga as a simile involving a comparison of mind with a full clear moon, degenerates to a mistaken literalization of these images as internally produced visual data. Since the contents of mind are not easy to point to, the Buddha frequently used similes comparing visual and other sense objects with mental contents in order for meditators to clearly understand what they should be seeking and experiencing. In religious traditions of all kinds we often find a naive tendency to take literally what is meant as a simile. It seems this process has occurred somewhere along the line and has become enshrined in the Visuddhimagga’s description of the paṭibhāganimitta or “counter-part sign.” It is important that new generations of western meditators not be misled by this probable historical error.

Let me first say that it’s not really persuasive to begin an argument by alluding vaguely to “a naive tendency” in “religious traditions of all kinds”. An argument is established by building up small, knowable things and moving towards generalizations. Coming off the blocks generalizing about how religions are “naive” tells us more about the author’s attitudes than anything else. If we think our sources are naive, we no longer think they have anything to teach us and will be inclined to a swift dismissal of any difficult issues.

But let us look at more specifics. Sona points out a “critical” distinction in the Vimuttimagga. One thing to note here is that Sona is relying on the old, draft translation by Ehara, Soma, and Kheminda. The shortcomings of this are well known, yet he nowhere acknowledges the critical inadequacy of his source. I’m checking his quotes against the now-standard new translation by Nyanatusita, and supply the old=new page numbers.

The quoted passage (68 = 250) says, “the sign of one meditation subject is to be grasped through the touched, namely, mindfulness of breathing.” According to Sona, this “shows that breath meditation is different from other concentration objects in that it is exclusively tactile”. He wants to argue that there is no visual nimitta for breath meditation. But that is not what the passage is talking about. It is describing the sensory basis of the meditation subject, not the nimitta. Some meditations, like fire or earth kasina, are based on looking at an object; others by feeling it. Breath is, of course, purely tactile as a meditation subject, whereas the “air kasina” can be both, since the movement of air can be both observed and felt.

A longer passage (158–9 = 420–3) details the process of breath meditation. Sona points out the rather curious fact that some of the very same descriptions of nimittas that the Vimuttimagga says to avoid are described in the Visuddhimagga as the valid appearance of the subtle sign. It is an interesting contrast, but does it bear the weight Sona places on it?

Now, during the process of meditation, it is common for various images and experiences to manifest, and a meditator should be clearly aware of this and ignore them. Mara appears in many forms. In particular, it is common for various perceptions to arise at the beginning of meditation which, to an inexperienced meditator, appear similar to how the subtle nimitta manifests as one approaches jhāna. Thus the Vimuttimagga, in describing such false visions, specifies “a meditator who from the beginning sees different signs”. A note by Nyanatusita explains that “different” could also mean “deviant”.

The Visuddhimagga, on the other hand, is not talking about a meditator “at the beginning” but, rather, one who is on the verge of jhāna. It too emphasizes that a meditator should remain focused on the breath until that point. The exact relationship between these two presentations is interesting, and would probably reward a closer look. But it is safe to say that the Visuddhimagga is no stranger to the idea that things might appear as a false path at certain stages of meditation which at other stages of meditation would be a sign of success. There is, in fact, an entire section on the ten “imperfections of insight” devoted to this.

These are by no means purely theoretical problems. It is common, if not normal, for meditators to encounter such byways. I regularly have meditators ask me this exact question: “I saw a light/felt a tingle/saw a mist/whatever”, should I focus on that or go back to my meditation?" And I always give the same advice: go back to the breath. The true nimitta arises as a powerful transformation manifesting within the breath, and the very fact that someone is doubting it shows that the hindrances are still present.

Sona further comments on this passage:

The sentence “this does not depend on colour or form” makes it quite clear that the meditator should not expect the sign of respiration mindfulness as a visual image, since it is not possible to conceive of a visual perception lacking both colour and form.

However, compare with the corrected translation in context:

Thus, observing the touch of the wind of the in-breaths and out-breaths at the [tip of the] nose or the [upper] lip gives rise to the sign of the wind, which is not caused by [attending to] shape or color.

The passage has nothing to do with whether the nimitta is visual or not. The point, which really just reiterates the earlier point about the breath being tactile, is that the breath has neither shape nor color, yet it gives rise to the nimitta.

Thus far, the passages don’t really tell us anything about the nimitta. They have spoken of either the sensation of the breath or of distractions. But Sona is quite right to point out that when the section on breath meditation does describe the nimitta, it does so in purely tactile terms:

The sign is like the pleasant touch of a tuft of silk, or a tuft of cotton wool touching the body, or it is like the pleasant touch of cool breeze touching the body.

How are we to read this? Sona has adduced a variety of passages that purport to show the description excludes a visual nimitta. As we have seen, the cited passages don’t prove his case. But this seems to be a strong piece of evidence, as it it directly describes the nimitta.

Now, in context, this passage on the breath nimitta appears well into the discussion of the different kinds of meditations. The basic description of the nimitta is found, as in the Visuddhimagga, in the discussion of the earth kasina (Nyanatusita 270). There the nimitta is defined as meaning “cause” (of samādhi), “perception”, and “reflection, like seeing the reflection of one’s own face.” The so-called “counterpart sign” is said to have the same meaning as the latter, i.e. “reflection”.

Taking this on face value (see what I did there!), the nimitta must be purely visual. But when we come to the section on breath meditation, we learn that the nimitta is tactile. I would suggest that it is possible to read these two passages in a harmonizing way: a nimitta is normally visual, but in breath meditation it may also be tactile.

The Visuddhimagga emphasizes the variability of the breath nimitta, saying that the “single meditation subject appears differently because of difference in perception”. Sona says that “the editors” of the Visuddhimagga “seem rather uncomfortable” with this diversity. I think he’s just reading into it. I’ve always really liked this passage, as it acknowledges the diversity of meditation experiences.

Sona says that “a great mystery is solved” when we realize that terms first used as metaphors were later taken to be literal.

One can only wonder how these metaphorical images, found at the end of the section describing breathing meditation in the Patisambhidamagga, eventually became literal visual events related to meditation practice in later commentarial works.

I would beg to differ. I see no mystery here, except the ordinary mystery of how the mind works. This is the job of perception, trafficking in metaphor and image. Has no-one ever dreamed? Do we not “see” things every night that make concrete images out of vague emotions or memories?

When your mind approaches samādhi, it becomes “bright”. You actually “see” a light, so that you might even open your eyes to check if a light had been turned on. This is not a naive idea from an old tome, it’s a common experience for meditators. But why do things “seem” like a light? Because it is perception, that’s how it works. The mind talks to itself using metaphors, which is why the metaphor of light is perceived by the mind as if it were actual light.

The metaphor of “light” is built into consciousness at a fundamental level: daytime we can see things, nighttime we can’t. Perception manifests as a “light” because that is how the mind communicates to itself that it is becoming clear, that knowing is breaking free of hindrances, that the cloud of ignorance is lifting.

If there are things in ancient meditation texts that describe metaphors that appear to the meditator as a literalized visual image, that’s because that is the job of a meditation book: to describe what happens when we meditate. And these are things that do in fact appear to meditators.

Sona says:

I am sure many a meditator has wondered why the Buddha had failed to mention the critical information of the “sign” and “counter-sign” in breath meditation

Indeed, but he has missed the actual answer to this problem. What is called the nimitta today is referred to under other terms in the Suttas, such as obhāsa, rūpa, and so on. The suttas are constantly talking about meditation in terms of light; indeed the very words jhāna and samādhi carry connotations of light in them.

Of course the commentary is more detailed, because, well, that is the job of a commentary. Not every detail and distinction can be traced back to the suttas. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong; clearly they had built up a body of doctrine over the centuries of meditation experience. Let us not forget that the Visuddhimagga is, by far, the most detailed, practical, and useful meditation manual produced anywhere in ancient times.

I think that some of the differences that Sona points out are interesting and worthy of further study. But if we want to understand the historical evolution of ideas, we have to start by not getting tripped up over terminology.


Thank you for this interesting essay Bhante. It’s a topic that interests me as well. I don’t really take sides on such matters as the pyrrhonist in me doesn’t believe we can know such topics with absolute certainty, still I appreciate different viewpoints and interpretations.

I don’t see the connection between light and the 5 hindrances. From my own experience, the light, which can be so bright as it feels like I’m staring at the sun, is definitely a novelty when one first experiences it but it’s the piti and sukha that seem to be related to stopping the hindrances. The utility behind them is that it shows you that you can feel good without resorting to sensual desires, so one becomes independent in where they “get their fix” so to speak, and cut out the middle man. You no longer need to rely on food, music or other drugs to feel good, instead you can feel good directly by calming your mind, and this is wholesome as the Buddha said in the suttas it’s because of sensual pleasures people can do unwholesome things.

Another point, are you implying that light is just a “cue” one develops subconsciously, and is not an actual cause of things? Like for example in hypnosis one can anchor things to behaviours. So seeing a red light at a traffic light anchors the behaviour of stopping (pressing brake pedal). A hypnotist could anchor a word to trigger a behavour. I can’t tell if you’re saying if the light itself is a hallucination created by the mind, or if you believe the light is “real” but the anchor is imaginary.

I personally believe that light (obhasa) in the suttas has to do with abhinna and nanadassana. My own experience seems to align with that as strong light during meditation seems to result in visual and audible hallucinations. Whether the light itself is a hallucination of the mind or a biochemical effect, I have no idea.

Thanks again for the essay and sharing your ideas.


Hello Bhante. :anjal:

But let us look at more specifics. Sona points out a “critical” distinction in the Vimuttimagga. One thing to note here is that Sona is relying on the old, draft translation by Ehara, Soma, and Kheminda. The shortcomings of this are well known, yet he nowhere acknowledges the critical inadequacy of his source. I’m checking his quotes against the now-standard new translation by Nyanatusita, and supply the old=new page numbers.

I’m not sure if it changes anything, but as far as I know the article of Venerable Ajahn Sona is pretty old. I cannot find the publish date, but it can be like 15 years old, so not sure if the translation you mention did exist at this time.

I’m a super fan of Ajahn Sona, but I agree with you Bhante Sujato in this article. It is also possible that Venerable Ajahn Sona has changed his mind during all this time. I’m sure that in one of his Q&A’s he was speaking something like this article was first thing he published when he was a “young monk” or at least younger than now. :wink:

With Metta :pray:


Yes, he seems to misunderstand the Visuddhimagga here. It does not depend upon colour or form means that it is simply a concept.

But it has neither colour nor shape; for if it had, it would be cognizable by the eye, gross, susceptible of comprehension [by insight—(see XX.2f.)] and stamped with the three characteristics.11 But it is not like that. For it is born only of perception in one who has obtained concentration, being a mere mode of appearance

Visuddhimagga - CHAPTER IV The Earth Kasiṇa

From the sub-commentary

“If ‘it is not like that’—is not possessed of colour, etc.—then how is it the object of Jhāna? It is in order to answer that question that the sentence beginning, ‘For it is …’ is given. ‘Born of the perception’: produced by the perception during development, simply born from the perception during development. Since there is no arising from anywhere of what has no individual essence, he therefore said, ‘Being the mere mode of appearance’” (Vism-mhþ 122). See Ch. VIII, n. 11.

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These are all on too shallow a level. I’m saying that the metaphor of “light” is hard-wired into the nature of consciousness.

Oh absolutely. More than that, I think. I couldn’t find a publishing date, but my memory tells me it was in the 90s.

Look, if someone dug up a 20 year old article of mine and took the time to criticize it, I’d be like, “ooh, someone’s reading my article!”


Mine too. I was first told about Sona’s theory by the German monk Nyanaramita when he visited Thailand in 1990, though I had to wait another twenty years before I got to see a copy of the article.


Surely that’s too early? Sona was just ordained then, if at all. I think he’s a couple of years senior to me, so about 1991 or something?

Absolutely. It’s weird. To me, the response to the Visuddhimagga’s section on samadhi is, “Oh wow, they described all these things in such detail that expand what’s in the suttas, how lucky we are to have an ancient text that speaks to meditation experience so directly.” You don’t have to buy into every detail to recognize that there is something significant there.

Which is why I keep pointing out the linguistic shift between the suttas and commentaries, which it seems to me is the source of the confusion.

If someone wants to say, “Not everyone experiences meditation in that way” then sure, bearing in mind that the Visuddhimagga has a lot to say about differences between meditators as well.

But frankly, most meditation teachers are working at a far less sophisticated level than the Visuddhimagga these days. How many teachers just give the same method for everyone, instead of tuning the meditation to the student’s character? How many give such careful attention to the preparation for meditation? How many teach the proper attitude of the student? How many have a teaching that goes all the way from the very beginnings to the very highest?

Have you studied the text in context? The translation has been done over many years, and the author is extremely careful and thorough. Like many Buddhist texts, the Chinese is not easy at all! Nyanatusita has extensive discussions of these issues, including a footnote on this passage. Not to say that it can’t be mistaken, but I’m going to need more than that.


Bhante. AN 4.41 refers to four developments of mind occurring due to samadhi. The 1st development is of jhana & called a pleasant abiding. The 2nd development refers to “light” and seems to refer to some type of psychic power of “knowing & seeing”. Regardless, the development of jhana in AN 4.41 seems distinct/different to the development of “light” in AN 4.41.

I am browsing the Vsm now. At least the term “uggahanimitta”, based on Bhikkhu Ñánamoli’s translation of “learning sign”, is found 38 times (including footnotes). These uses are not exclusively related to anapanasati. In the Asubha Kammaṭṭhāna section, the term “uggahanimitta” is found at least 10 times. For example:

In his night quarters and in his day quarters he should keep his mind anchored there thus, “Repulsiveness of the bloated, repulsiveness of the bloated.” And he should advert to the [learning] sign, bring it to mind and strike at it with thought and applied thought over and over again. As he does so, the counterpart sign arises. Here is the difference between the two signs. The learning sign appears as a hideous, dreadful and frightening sight; but the counterpart sign appears like a man with big limbs lying down after eating his fill. Simultaneously with his acquiring the counterpart sign, his lust is abandoned by suppression owing to his giving no attention externally to sense desires [as object]. And owing to his abandoning of approval, ill will is abandoned too, as pus is with the abandoning of blood. Likewise stiffness and torpor are abandoned through exertion of energy, agitation and worry are abandoned through devotion to peaceful things that cause no remorse; and uncertainty about the Master who teaches the way, about the way, and about the fruit of the way, is abandoned through the actual experience of the distinction attained. So the five hindrances are abandoned. And there are present applied thought with the characteristic of directing the mind on to that same sign, and sustained thought accomplishing the function of pressing on the sign, and happiness due to the acquisition of distinction, and tranquillity due to the production of tranquillity in one whose mind is happy, and bliss with that tranquillity as its sign, and unification that has bliss as its sign due to the production of concentration in one whose mind is blissful. So the jhána factors become manifest. Thus access, which is the obverse of the first jhána, is produced in him too at that same moment. All after that up to absorption in the first jhána and mastery in it should be understood as described under the earth kasina. As regards the livid and the rest: the characterizing already described, starting with the going in the way beginning “One who is learning the bloated sign of foulness goes alone with no companion, with unremitting mindfulness established” (§19), should all be understood with its exposition and intention, substituting for the word “bloated” the appropriate word in each case thus: “One who is learning the livid sign of foulness …”, “One who is learning the festering sign of foulness …” But the differences are as follows.


  1. This meditation subject is successful with a whole skeleton frame and even with a single bone as well. So having learnt the sign in anyone of these in the eleven ways, he should bring it to mind as “Repulsiveness of a skeleton, repulsiveness of a skeleton.” Here the learning sign and the counterpart sign are alike, so it is said. That is correct for a single bone. But when the learning sign becomes manifest in a skeleton frame, what is correct [to say] is that there are gaps in the learning sign while the counterpart sign appears whole. [193] And the learning sign even in a single bone should be dreadful and terrifying but the counterpart sign produces happiness and joy because it brings access.

Below it used for the earth kasina:

That [conceptual state] can be called by anyone he likes among the names for earth (pathavì) such as “earth” (pathavì), “the Great One” (mahì), “the Friendly One” (medinì), “ground” (bhúmi), “the Provider of Wealth” (vasudhá), “the Bearer of Wealth” (vasudhará), etc., whichever suits his manner of perception. Still “earth” is also a name that is obvious, so it can be developed with the obvious one by saying “earth, earth.” It should be adverted to now with eyes open, now with eyes shut. And he should go on developing it in this way a hundred times, a thousand times, and even more than that, until the learning sign arises…

  1. As he does so, the hindrances eventually become suppressed, the
    defilements subside, the mind becomes concentrated with access concentration, and the counterpart sign arises. The difference between the earlier learning sign and the counterpart sign is this. In the learning sign any fault in the kasina is apparent. But the counterpart sign [126] appears as if breaking out from the learning sign, and a hundred times, a thousand times more purified, like a looking-glass disk drawn from its case, like a mother-of-pearl dish well washed, like the moon’s disk coming out from behind a cloud, like cranes against a thunder cloud. But it has neither colour nor shape; for if it had, it would be cognizable by the eye, gross, susceptible of comprehension [by insight—(see XX.2f.)] and stamped with the three characteristics. But it is not like that. For it is born only of perception in one who has obtained concentration, being a mere mode of appearance. But as soon as it arises the hindrances are quite suppressed, the defilements subside,
    and the mind becomes concentrated in access concentration.

32. Now, concentration is of two kinds, that is to say, access concentration and absorption concentration: the mind becomes concentrated in two ways, that is, on the plane of access and on the plane of obtainment. Herein, the mind becomes concentrated on the plane of access by the abandonment of the hindrances, and on the plane of obtainment by the manifestation of the jhána factors. The difference between the two kinds of concentration is this. The factors are not strong in access. It is because they are not strong that when access has arisen, the mind now makes the sign its object and now re-enters the lifecontinuum, just as when a young child is lifted up and stood on its feet, it repeatedly falls down on the ground. But the factors are strong in absorption. It is because they are strong that when absorption concentration has arisen, the mind, having once interrupted the flow of the life-continuum, carries on with a stream of profitable impulsion for a whole night and for a whole day, just as a healthy man, after rising from his seat, could stand for a whole day.

Below is it used for air kasina (which is not Anapanasati):

9. Anyone who wants to develop the air kasióa should apprehend the sign in air. And that is done either by sight or by touch. For this is said in the Commentaries: “One who is learning the air kasióa apprehends the sign in air. He notices the tops of [growing] sugarcane moving to and fro; or he notices the tops of bamboos, or the tops of trees, or the ends of the hair, moving to and fro; or he notices the touch of it on the body.”

  1. So when he sees sugarcanes with dense foliage standing with tops level or bamboos or trees, or else hair four fingers long on a man’s head, being struck by the wind, he should establish mindfulness in this way: “This wind is striking on this place.” Or he can establish mindfulness where the wind strikes a part of his body after entering by a window opening or by a crack in a wall, and using any among the names for wind (váta) beginning with “wind” (váta), “breeze” (máluta), “blowing” (anila), he should develop [the kasina] by using [preferably] the obvious “air, air.”

  2. Here the learning sign appears to move like the swirl of hot [steam] on rice gruel just withdrawn from an oven. The counterpart sign is quiet and motionless. The rest should be understood in the way already described.

Then later the Anapanasati section repeats the above:

“Fixing his mind upon the sign
And putting away extraneous aspects
The clever man anchors his mind
Upon the breathings in and out.”

  1. So as soon as the sign appears, his hindrances are suppressed, his
    defilements subside, his mindfulness is established, and his consciousness is concentrated in access concentration.

  2. Then he should not give attention to the sign as to its colour, or review it as to its [specific] characteristic. He should guard it as carefully as a king’s chief queen guards the child in her womb due to become a Wheel-turning Monarch,62 or as a farmer guards the ripening crops; and he should avoid the seven unsuitable things beginning with the unsuitable abode and cultivate the seven suitable things. Then, guarding it thus, he should make it grow and improve with repeated attention, and he should practice the tenfold skill in absorption (IV.42) and bring about evenness of energy (IV.66).

222. As he strives thus, fourfold and fivefold jhána is achieved by him on that same sign in the same way as described under the earth kasina.

5–8. (See §189) However, when a bhikkhu has achieved the fourfold and
fivefold jhána and wants to reach purity by developing the meditation subject through observing and through turning away, he should make that jhána familiar by attaining mastery in it in the five ways (IV.131), and then embark upon insight by defining mentality-materiality. How?

The Vsm continues:

  1. The arousing of the counterpart sign, which arises together with access concentration, is very difficult. Therefore if he is able to arrive at absorption in that same session by extending the sign, it is good.


So guard the sign, nor count the cost,
And what is gained will not be lost;
Who fails to have this guard maintained
Will lose each time what he has gained.

  1. Herein, the way of guarding it is this:
    (1) Abode, (2) resort, (3) and speech, (4) and person,
    (5) The food, (6) the climate, (7) and the posture—
    Eschew these seven different kinds
    Whenever found unsuitable.
    But cultivate the suitable;
    For one perchance so doing finds
    He need not wait too long until
    Absorption shall his wish fulfil.


  1. So, while he is guiding his mind in this way, confronting the sign, [then knowing]: “Now absorption will succeed,” there arises in him mind-door adverting with that same earth kasina as its object, interrupting the [occurrence of consciousness as] life-continuum, and evoked by the constant repeating of “earth, earth.” After that, either four or five impulsions impel on that same object, the last one of which is an impulsion of the fine-material sphere. The rest are of the sense sphere, but they have stronger applied thought, sustained thought, happiness, bliss, and unification of mind than the normal ones. They are called “preliminary work” [consciousnesses] because they are the preliminary work for absorption; [138] and they are also called “access” consciousnesses] because of their nearness to absorption because they happen in its neighbourhood, just as the words “village access” and “city access” are used for a place near to a village, etc.; and they are also called “conformity” [consciousnesses] because they conform to those that precede the “preliminary work” [consciousnesses] and to the absorption that follows. And the last of these is also called “changeof-lineage” because it transcends the limited [sense-sphere] lineage and brings into being the exalted [fine-material-sphere] lineage.

Therefore, in conclusion of the above, the impression is the counterpart sign is actually not anything particularly lofty; nor directly related to actual jhana. The counterpart sign seems to merely be a sign of Neighborhood/Access Concentration. :hushed:

It was interesting :saluting_face: how Buddhaghosa refuted the Abhidhamma:

  1. But the Abhidhamma scholar, the Elder Godatta, quoted this text: “Preceding profitable states are a condition, as repetition condition, for succeeding profitable states” (Paþþh I 5). Adding, “It is owing to the repetition condition that each succeeding state is strong, so there is absorption also in the sixth and seventh.”

  2. That is rejected by the commentaries with the remark that it is merely that elder’s opinion, adding that, “It is only either in the fourth or the fifth that there is absorption. Beyond that, impulsion lapses. It is said to do so because of nearness of the life-continuum.” And that has been stated in this way after consideration, so it cannot be rejected. For just as a man who is running towards a precipice and wants to stop cannot do so when he has his foot on the edge but falls over it, so there can be no fixing in absorption in the sixth or the seventh because of the nearness to the life-continuum. That is why it should be understood that there is absorption only in the fourth or the fifth.

:smiley: In preference to all of the above, I prefer the Sutta quote below:

When a noble disciple, relying on letting go, gains immersion, gains unification of mind.

SN 48.9 :pray:t2: :buddha: :thaibuddha:

However, returning to directly on topic, my impression from the above is:

  1. The acquired/learning sign (uggahanimitta) is the signs of the features of the object; namely, the sign of the loathsome, the signs/features of in & out breathing, etc.
  2. The counterpart sign (paṭibhāganimitta) is a sign of the mind becoming relatively calm and not being ‘caught up’/‘stimulated’ in the signs of the meditation objects.


  1. taking hold of (mentally), grasping; grasp; learning, what is learnt
  2. noticing, taking notice, perception



  1. counterpart, opposite, contrary MN.i.304


Therefore, I think the term “paṭibhāga” means “opposite” here, namely, the “paṭibhāganimitta” is a different/opposite/counter sign to the “uggahanimitta”.

The “uggahanimitta” is actually the mind saliently experiencing the features of the meditation object. In other words, the meditation objects are striking the mind so strongly that they dominate the mind’s experience.

Where as the “paṭibhāganimitta” is the mind saliently experiencing calm or, even what the Suttas call “The Deathless”. In other words, per SN 48.9, even though the mind may still be experiencing the breathing, at this stage, the primary focus/experience of the mind is of letting go (vossagga) & of the calm/nibbana experienced from letting go. That’s my theory. :dizzy:

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Bhante, I’m quite positive about both the date and the nature of the thesis. What I don’t remember clearly is whether it was to Sona in particular that Nyanaramita attributed the thesis. It may have have been some other monk who had advanced the same or a similar idea. It wouldn’t be too surprising if two monks came independently to the same idea, for the different descriptions of the nimitta in the Vimuttimagga and Visuddhimagga had already been noted (very briefly) by P.V. Bapat way back in his 1937 comparative study of the two manuals.


Venerable. Could you kindly summarize how you viewed the conclusions of the thesis? Thank you

異 can mean “strange, foreign.” I don’t have access to Nyanatusita translation, but I think he must be referring to the way “strange” can be used to imply that it’s suspicious. “That person is acting strange. I don’t trust them!” It’s like that in Chinese, too. Looking at the that passage, I would just read it as different; i.e., different than the sign or perception one is supposed to be perceiving when they are being mindful of their breath, which can distract them if they aren’t focused. The BPS translation is a decent idiomatic translation to me.


I see in my notes from Ven. Sona’s Kasina virtual retreat this past June that he said he wrote the essay about 25 years ago.

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Hi all, :slight_smile:

I’m not informed enough to say anything about possible textual developments in these texts. :blush: But I can reply to Venerable Sona’s statement, “I am sure many a meditator has wondered why the Buddha had failed to mention the critical information of the “sign” and “counter-sign” in breath meditation”.

I never really wondered too much about this, and it is because of what Venerable Sujato pointed out:

" the diversity of meditation experiences."

I’ve for a long time believed the suttas don’t go into much details on nimittas (I’ll use the current terminology) exactly because of this diversity. The first question I ever asked my teacher Ajahn Brahm (who I met after many years of following his teachings) was “why do you keep talking about lights?” Because some people don’t experience it like a light at all often, yet it’s same realm of meditation. Ajahn acknowledged different experiences are possible. He has said lights are most useful to most people, that’s why he teaches them specifically.

But the suttas are not for “most people”, they are for everybody. The suttas were meant for a wide, general audience, meant to be recited in groups and passed on to all. Meditation, I belief, was largely taught on an individual level that didn’t find a way into the suttas as much. The suttas focus more on virtue and doctrine, things that are less personal and apply the same to everybody. Meditation on the other hand can be very individual.

The most often repeated and most descriptive passage on meditation is of course the jhanas. But these are the same for everybody. Prior to them, when the hindrances are still present in whatever form, the mind can do just about anything imaginable.

In the anapanasati instructions therefore, we find not “light” or even “form” but just “the mind” (citta) or “the mental formation” (cittasankhara). In my interpretation of the sutta, this is where the “nimitta” territory is. But it is not called a light nor even a form, because it is not perceived like that always. Nimittas can be a tactile feeling (although it’s not tactile…), a strange sound, a pure mental feeling even. I’m sure the Buddha was aware of all such possibilities and therefore didn’t limit the discourse to experiences of light, is what I think.

The suttas are not just quiet on nimittas, though. They’re quiet on specifics about meditation in general. Just compare any current meditation guide to the suttas, and you’ll see what I mean. The former will have all sorts of tips and tricks. The latter are extremely general almost all of the time. I mean, to give an example, the most detailed instruction on how to overcome doubt in the suttas I know says “focus on things that don’t cause doubt”. Well, tha’ts not very informative! And that’s not an isolated case. The standard instruction on how to enter jhana is just to abandon the hindrances and the kaamas, for example. But nowadays you’ll find whole books about how to practice jhanas.

I belief the specifics on how to overcome doubt and so forth were mostly relayed from teacher to pupil. They didn’t find their way into the suttas as much, because that was not so much the intention of the suttas, which was the more doctrinal aspects, and inspiration of course.

We have remnants of that meditation tradition in the Visuddhimagga and such, though, which is why I think we should respect their ideas on meditation a bit more than is sometimes done. I mean, of course they have some strange ideas. But sometimes they’re just called “Buddhaghosa’s ideas”, as if that settles the matter. But that is really not reflective of what the Visuddhimagga portrays itself to be.

I’m happy Venerable Sona didn’t do that kind of thing, and made a textual argument instead, although I don’t fully understand it.

What is called the nimitta today is referred to under other terms in the Suttas, such as obhāsa, rūpa, and so on.

I know of MN128. Any other references you could share, bhante @sujato? Particularly interested if you have any clear references where rūpa is a mental/nonphyisical experience, even outside of meditation.


While this is true, doesn’t this hold true to some extant for all philosophy and more broadly all language use? Concepts reveal and conceal at the same time,there’s no getting around it through concepts, even though Madhyamaka has surely tried. :slight_smile:



I think a lot of these problems are more with the Theravada tradition, to be honest, rather than the Visuddhimagga of itself. It’s just a text, a complex and comprehensive one to be sure, but it can’t contain everything. But it seems to have cast this spell over the whole Theravada tradition. It is such an impressive achievement, it towers over you like the stupas at Anuradhapura. And it becomes impossible in mainstream, Theravada to say, well, this bit is not great, let’s work on developing it.

One problem area, which Ven Dhammika pointed out long ago, is that the Vsm waxes lyrical when discussing the grotesqueries of the body, but is muted when it comes to the brahma viharas and other emotional contexts.

Or else, as pointed out by Ñāṇamoli, its explanation of the five aggregates is odd, since it rearranges them, putting consciousness after form, then spending most of the discussion of consciousness talking about the other aggregates, then having little to say when it comes time for them. The discussions of perception and sankharas are only a couple of paragraphs each.

Anyway, point is, it’s not perfect, but well, few things are.

Exactly. I often feel like one of the subtleties of the suttas is that they say just enough, and avoid all kinds of problems that tend to arise when you want to over-explain things.


I suppose that’s what compels personal investigation for genuine insight and wisdom.


Hello, Sujato Bhikkhu,
Long time, no see. Someone sent me a notice that an essay of mine was being discussed, so I thought I would drop in. First a few timelines: I was ordained in 1989; the essay was written in about 1996-7, and I did a slight update or edit a couple of years after that. I am happy to see the various responses to it, so many years later. And indeed, any challenges to my argument are most welcome since the canon and commentaries are vast, intricate and represent the possibilities of mind and heart that only a small fraction of humanity has experienced, and that an even smaller fraction of whom are articulate about those experiences.
I will make a few clarifications regarding some of your points. Regarding the “naive tendency” found in many religions, which you see as a “generalization”, it is not meant as such. Only that quite obviously there are practitioners within many religions and ideologies who are concrete literalists and take what is meant as simile or metaphor as literal. The word “light” can be one of these concepts. There is literal light seen by the eyes, light which is an internal experience, but simply that, and not the “light of wisdom, or understanding” etc. It struck me that the similes which the Visuddhimagga was using to describe internal visual experiences were borrowed from similes for wisdom or knowledge experiences ie, “as the moon comes out from behind a cloud or mist or dust” which could easily be used in english literature and understood as simply mental clarity about a subject or situation. In fact to leave that simile as an internal “light” experience would be to miss the point. The words “obhasa nimmitta” don’t necessarily mean a literal light, although that of course can occur. If that is all it meant it wouldn’t be very significant. As I mention in the essay, it is quite common to experience inner light and it may well occur in jhana or in other strong experiences in life, but that kind of light is an “epiphenomenon” not the important emotive, intellectual light and clarity which is the real feature of right samadhi.
The title “The mystery of the breath nimitta” is just a nod to the Sherlock Holmes stories, with the subtitle
“or the case of the missing simile” as was a common phrase added to those stories. There may be people who haven’t found jhana a mystery to understand…good for them. But since it is a supernormal experience and given the large body of commentary over the centuries and continuing even here on this thread, it is apparent that it is not so simple!
As to the Vimuttimagga and it’s translations I had only access to whatever was available at the time. But it is a much simpler book and it is quite obvious that the Vism. is based on it, and is expanded, perhaps to clarify, but maybe simply to impress with its length. It is clear that Buddhaghosa is collecting various opinions on this ‘nearly impossible’ task of jhana on the breath. This is clearly a time of pessimism over the state of peoples capacities. It is less so in the earlier Vimuttimagga. The explanation there is fairly straightforward that the airy spaciousness within the head and eventually the whole body is a sensible effect of dwelling on the breath, which is air entering and leaving the body. When the other kasinas and colors are used as meditation object concentration on them is achieved by the mind becoming super clarified on the specific element that one is attending to…not surprisingly. As well there is a “light” kasina, which one would presume to produce a light nimitta, literal internal light. But hopefully as well as that light another level of light not amenable to easy words, that is the light of clarity, of joy perhaps, of ease, something more akin to poetic language but a heightened real internal experience.
In the end I simply advise that the basic jhanic factors are what really matters. They are emotional qualities and bodily feelings and are in all the standard descriptions the Buddha usually gives for the eighth factor of the path.
I see that a few others on this thread point out that the suttas descriptions are for everyone, but the commentarial feature of internal lights might be for some, but not all, and not of the essence of the samadhi experience, although indeed may frequently occur as an epiphenomena.
(On another topic entirely, we should chat sometime about a matter of history that has come to my attention recently, that is the influence of Greek thought and the arrival of writing and books in India, and its influence on the Abhidhamma and commentaries and perhaps the logical structures of the Mahayana texts.) All the best to you and others on this thread. Aj Sona


:pray: :pray: :pray: deep respects to the triple gem. What an incredible privilege an internet forum allows witnessing an exchange with two senior monks I deeply respect. sadhu sadhu sadhu


OMG dear Ven, so good to see you! It’s been a long time, too long.

Thanks for the updates, corrections, and clarifications. Thanks for feeding back to my feedback.

It’s an interesting matter. I mean, yes, this is the obvious reading, and the massive institutionalization of the Sangha by then is clearly a factor. When I was traveling around Sri Lanka recently, we went to some of the oldest caves and viharas—maybe the Aluvihara? but I can’t exactly remember which was which—and they were dedicated to the “fourfold Sangha”. Some time later, they were dedicated to “the monks of such and such nikaya”. You couldn’t ask for a clearer sign of the priorities of the evolving Sangha in its relation to temporal authorities.

Ooh yes please. Happy to loop in Mark Allon also, he has studied this period.


Dear B. Sujato,
Yes, if Mark Allon is familiar with this subject, he would be appreciated. A book I am using for reference is “The shape of ancient thought, comparative studies in Greek and Indian philosophies” by Thomas McEvilley. Published in 2001. Some very interesting connections are made. He spent about 30 years on this. I have been trying to piece some of the connections together for a long time but most scholars tend to be either from the Greek side or the Indian side and few have made any solid connections of the scattered pieces of the puzzle. Here, for instance, is a tantalizing consideration: the famous dialogue between the Arhant (and Abhidhamma master) Nagasena and the Greek king Milinda (actually Menander in Greek); Nagasena himself may have been Greek! After all, the conversation probably took place in Greek rather than pali. Many such interesting possibilities are brought up. Anyway, having appreciated your work on the Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts, I thought you might be the man for this topic. All the best, Aj Sona