Buddhas first jhana as a child

I wonder if all past Buddhas would have gone across that same immersion experience when young and still on the path to awakening and rediscovery of the four Noble truths. :thinking:

I recall that the Sutta in DN describing the awakening of previous Buddhas seems to suggest that for some all it took was inference from active investigation of the process of dependent origination. It seems to me a bit of a stretch … :man_shrugging:


IMHO, its the realization that relaxing the body and mind while being completely free from the pressures of the world, (like the innocent Bodhisattava child, completely at ease, feeling safe and secure watching his father work, not wanting anything more in this world or beyond this moment) leads to an effortless ‘letting go’ - which is the first step to the recognition and ending of craving.

In contrast the meditation methods taught by the previous two teachers were active, involving the doing of something (meditation) in order to get somewhere (the formless zones) and become something (enlightened)… thus not conducive to the identification or end of craving.


I think it is more subtle than that.
Possibly, it is because the sort of samadhi they were preaching and attaining was not caused according to the process and causal linkages found in suttas like AN10.2 and SN12.23:



Yes, indeed … these two suttas describe perfectly what I was most imperfectly trying to convey… the sense of letting go of the ‘doer’, being the ‘watcher’, wherein the mind moves effortlessly and naturally to being at rest, free of the hindrances, clear…where the 7 enlightenment factors arise and the dependent origination of all phenomena and the suffering consequent to craving becomes evident.


As far as I’m aware, the formless attainments, which the Buddha would have learned under his first teachers, are never actually described as jhana in the suttas. It’s possible one can get to them without needing jhana. That’s a line of thought nicely explored in the article here:
The Brahmavihara and some of the formless attainments seem to have been meditation practices already known in the Buddha’s time. The Brahmavihara may have been used as a launching pad to the formless attainments, though the original intention was something like union with Brahma, and the Buddha later repurposed these practices. In this theory, the Buddha would not have needed to learn jhana from his first teachers.


Here are some excerpts from MN 100. I hope it helps!

And that is how my teacher Āḷāra Kālāma placed me, his student, on the same position as him, and honored me with lofty praise.

Then it occurred to me, ‘This teaching doesn’t lead to disillusionment, dispassion, cessation, peace, insight, awakening, and extinguishment. It only leads as far as rebirth in the dimension of nothingness.’ Realizing that this teaching was inadequate, I left disappointed.
And that is how my spiritual companion Uddaka, son of Rāma, placed me in the position of a teacher, and honored me with lofty praise.

Then it occurred to me, ‘This teaching doesn’t lead to disillusionment, dispassion, cessation, peace, insight, awakening, and extinguishment. It only leads as far as rebirth in dimension of neither perception nor non-perception.’ Realizing that this teaching was inadequate, I left disappointed.
Then it occurred to me, ‘I recall sitting in the cool shade of the rose-apple tree while my father the Sakyan was off working. Quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unskillful qualities, I entered and remained in the first absorption, which has the rapture and bliss born of seclusion, while placing the mind and keeping it connected . Could that be the path to awakening?’ Stemming from that memory came the realization: ‘That is the path to awakening!’

Then it occurred to me, ‘Why am I afraid of that pleasure, for it has nothing to do with sensual pleasures or unskillful qualities?’ I thought, ‘I’m not afraid of that pleasure, for it has nothing to do with sensual pleasures or unskillful qualities.’

After eating solid food and gathering my strength, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unskillful qualities , I entered and remained in the first absorption … As the placing of the mind and keeping it connected were stilled , I entered and remained in the second absorption … third absorption … fourth absorption.

When my mind had immersed in samādhi like this—purified, bright, flawless, rid of corruptions, pliable, workable, steady, and imperturbable—I extended it toward recollection of past lives.


Thank you. So this is to be read that the buddha was meditating under the rose tree as a child when he first experienced jhana. Would this be the correct interpretation?
Much appreciated


Who knows? We don’t have a record of the Buddha’s thoughts, only a very partial record of what he taught. Beware of inferences from absence.

This episode is almost always misinterpreted because people ignore the kind of text they’re dealing with. It is a narrative, and its purpose is to tell a story. Comparing state-to-state is not the point. What matters is to understand the role the states play in the narrative. This is a systematic problem in modern Sutta interpretation: we have too many engineers and not enough story-tellers and poets!

Let me illustrate this by paraphrasing the story of the Buddha’s former teachers in a more familiar narrative style. The exact nature of the teaching of the two former teachers is not stated in the texts, so I indicate this with [square brackets].

The bodhisatta, looking for the end of the cycle of birth, ageing, and death, tried to find the answer by studying under the foremost contemplative teachers of his time.

He mastered the theory and texts [of the Upanishads], but unsatisfied with mere book learning, he wished to experience the advanced states that were described in the texts. His teachers encouraged him, even though these states were so very subtle and difficult that only one of his teachers had actually achieved what he taught, while the other was just passing down second-hand knowledge of his own teacher’s experiences.

The bodhisatta went on to achieve mastery of the peaceful states of meditation (samādhi AKA the four jhanas) and beyond, even to the exotic and elusive formless states. His teachers were so impressed that they invited him to lead their communities—they had never before witnessed a student so talented.

However, he realized that even these, the very highest and most sublime states taught in the spiritual circles of his contemporaries, aimed not to the ending of rebirth but to rebirth in the Brahma realms [following the Upanishadic philosophy]. He became disillusioned with that philosophy (dhamma) and departed to pursue his original quest.

The overriding imperative of the narrative is to depict the bodhisatta as one who has achieved the very highest that any contemplative alive had done; that he was, even before awakening, a spiritual master of all traditions. It’s not about the states. That’s just an implementation detail. He is said to have experienced the formless states because that’s what is regarded in Buddhism as the highest states achievable by non-Buddhists.

The Upanishadic theory (as interpreted by Buddhists) posits that the practice of jhanas brings you to the state of Brahma (which a Buddhist would agree with), and that that state is permanent and eternal (which a Buddhist would disagree with). When practicing jhanas under his former teachers, the bodhisatta was already trained in the Upanishadic philosophy to see the experience of samadhi through this lens. Wrong view, however, leads to wrong samadhi, and wrong samadhi doesn’t lead to liberation.

Compare with the narrative context of the recollection of jhana as a child, once again paraphrased to bring out the narrative force:

Disillusioned with his painful exertions [under the Jains, and also following his earlier experience under the two Upanishadic teachers], the bodhisatta realized that he could not find the path he sought among the spiritual practitioners of his time.

Even though he had been inspired to follow their example, and had learned much under their guidance, at the end of the day, it turns out that none of them had truly realized the ending of rebirth. They were still bound by their theories and ideas, which aimed at providing some sense of personal continuity, at achieving a permanent state of bliss for the self. But such states were produced by conditions, and anything produced by conditions could not be eternal. It seems he must abandon the idea that he could achieve awakening by following the teaching of others.

What, then, was his path? How could he move forward? Had he wasted the last six years?

Since he could not rely on others to show him the path, he was of necessity thrown back on to his own experience. It took him six years to learn this lesson: that the spiritual path was something he had to find for himself.

Then he recalled a long-forgotten episode from his childhood. Sitting under a rose-apple tree while his father was off working, he went into a peaceful state of meditation. Even as a child! He knew no philosophy, was following no path, had submitted to no guru. And yet this peace was there, falling unasked upon a child in nature.

“Might that be the path to awakening?" he wondered. And as soon as he thought that, somehow he intuitively knew: “Yes! That indeed is the path to awakening!”

Since that state was not embedded in a philosophy, it was not associated with wrong view. It was just a state of nature. This was the key insight: that peaceful states of meditation are not a manifestation of a specific metaphysical view, but are simply a condition of the mind. This opened up the possibility of the Buddha’s way of letting go.


Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu…

Thank you Bhante. That makes a lot more sense now. You put it in a better context for me to understand. I guess i a more "engineer " than “poet”…lol

Much metta



This is a brilliant question.

IMO He was practicing just one pointed concentration, one pointed concentration makes one peaceful while practicing. But once he ends meditation, the peace doesn’t lost longer.

How can one knows one is practicing one pointed concentration? When a sudden sound comes while meditating, one jerks and develops dislike towards sound. If he doesn’t jerks he doesn’t know that there was a sound due to one pointed concentration. It applies to all other senses.

IMO, Samadhi Buddha found is different than other meditations of those times. Buddha taught Serenity and Insights going together(at the same time).
How can one knows one is practicing Buddha’s Samadhi? When a sudden/lot of sound comes he allows the sound to be there, his mind doesn’t develops any dislike as he treats sound as sound. Same applies to other senses.

1 Like

People are talking about the Buddha practicing the jhānas with his teachers, but, as far as I know, the texts only mention him practicing with the immaterial attainments with them. Am I mistaken?

Something I gleaned from the book Reexamining Jhāna (at least I think it was that book) was that the four jhānas were a novel discovery of the Buddha. In other words he was the one who systematized and classified them and gave them importance.

Bhikkhu Analayo in the freely downloadable A Comparative Study of the Majjhima-Nikaya summarizes a lot of points of similarity and difference between the suttas in the MN and their parallels. The parallels are another angle on this question. In Volume 1 there are several pages discussing parallels to the Buddha’s first jhana experience described in MN36 (for several pages from p. 240 onwards or from p. 266 in the PDF file numbering system). Mostly, but not entirely, they agree that this happened before his going forth. There are some variances on other points though.

Hi Clay, Bhante Sujato addressed this above:

The short argument is that MN26 SuttaCentral mentions the highest state of absorption that the bodhisattva achieved under his teachers, but that doesn’t rule out him progressing though the other states.

1 Like

Isn’t assuming he practiced the jhānas with his teachers precisely making an inference from an absence? It makes little sense to believe the Buddha practiced the first jhāna hundreds or thousands of times as an adult before it occurred to him that it was the path to awakening. It renders the story about his childhood experience nonsensical. Why would he have to recall that far back when he could have just recalled last Tuesday?

I can only guess this way of thinking comes about by believing that one has to progress through each of the eight jhānas/immaterial realms in strict sequential order. But if that were true (and known), one wonders why Alara Kalama didn’t go and study under Uddaka Ramaputta.


It’s interesting the Buddha’s recollected jhana as a child, and not whatever he experienced under Kalama and Ramaputta. Also consider this:

“For a person whose mind is concentrated, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May I know & see things as they actually are.’ It is in the nature of things that a person whose mind is concentrated knows & sees things as they actually are." AN11.2

Considering quotes such as these I don’t think the Buddha practiced the real formless attainments years before his enlightenment. Whatever he experienced then wasn’t part of samadhi. I consider it more likely he was taught something else. And when he later went through the real formless attainments, he gave them the same name. (Or a perhaps a similar name that later got confused.)

Alexander Wynne has argued for this (or something like this) in The Origins Of Buddhist meditation, finding the precursors to the fake “formless states” in the Upanishads. (I only read a brief review, not the entire book.) Ajahn Brahm also mentioned a similar idea in Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond.

To me it is impossible the Buddha would have experienced the formless states and then neglected them in favor of asceticism. And so he experienced something else.


I though Bhante @Sujato’s reasoning about this was quite interesting, but of course it’s not possible for us to know for certain.

(My emphasis.)

I take this to be saying that the bodhisattva’s teachers (and the bodhisattva in turn) were practising absorption with a particular philosophical goal (merging with the true self or something - the details are not important to the argument). After leaving those teachers he had been practising extreme forms of renunciation.
The realisation that absorptions can be, instead of a path to Brahma/True Self, etc, part of a path to simply letting go of the world seems to be the point of the sutta passage:

Stemming from that memory came the realization: ‘That is the path to awakening!’

Then it occurred to me, ‘Why am I afraid of that pleasure, for it has nothing to do with sensual pleasures or unskillful qualities?’ Then I thought, ‘I’m not afraid of that pleasure, for it has nothing to do with sensual pleasures or unskillful qualities.’

Then I thought, ‘I can’t achieve that pleasure with a body so excessively emaciated. Why don’t I eat some solid food, some rice and porridge?’ So I ate some solid food.


This seems to be what is brought out in MN1… One needs to go beyond the direct experience of particular states and attachment to various philosophies based on those experiences … towards an understanding of the ultimately impermanent and not self nature of these states.

They directly know water … fire … air … creatures … gods … the Creator … Brahmā … the gods of streaming radiance … the gods replete with glory … the gods of abundant fruit … the Overlord … the dimension of infinite space … the dimension of infinite consciousness … the dimension of nothingness … the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception … the seen … the heard … the thought … the known … oneness … diversity … all … They directly know extinguishment as extinguishment. But they shouldn’t identify with extinguishment, they shouldn’t identify regarding extinguishment, they shouldn’t identify as extinguishment, they shouldn’t identify that ‘extinguishment is mine’, they shouldn’t take pleasure in extinguishment. Why is that? So that they may completely understand it, I say.


There is stucked-ness. Even if one is reborn in the Brahma realm via first jhana, we have:

DN33:3.1.132: They think: ‘If only, when my body breaks up, after death, I would be reborn in the company of the Gods of Brahmā’s Host!’ They settle on that thought, concentrate on it and develop it. As they’ve settled for less and not developed further, their thought leads to rebirth there.

And there is death:

MN85:46.9: ‘Sir, Āḷāra Kālāma passed away seven days ago.’

1 Like

Before discussing the formless attainments, it says that he had mastered sīla, viriya, sati, samādhi, paññā. This is the same set of dhammas that was later called the indriyas or balas, where, as in every significant doctrinal context, samādhi is defined as the four jhanas. This of course agrees with the many passages that show that the formless attainments always build on the four jhanas as the “successive abidings” or “successive cessations” and so on. None of these meditation states just pop out of nowhere: they depend on conditions.

This is why narrative context and intertextuality is important. Such details are almost always left out of retellings, or their significance is overlooked.

The meaning of these terms is established because they make sense within a narrative context. His experience under the former teachers follows a familiar path, which echoes the later Buddhist gradual training. Going forth, learning the Dhamma, undertaking precepts, mastering the foundations of meditation, gaining samadhi, then on to the formless attainments.

The similarities between the path here and in the Buddhist context are striking and clearly intentional. It is, indeed, because of the similarities that the differences become meaningful.

The problem with the former teachers’ approach was not that there was something wrong with the meditation, it was that it only leads to rebirth in the formless realms. If it wasn’t “real” formless meditation, this is obviously impossible.

What is the purpose of this story? What is it trying to tell us? There is nothing in the narrative to indicate that its purpose is to show that technical terms like “samadhi” or “formless attainments” were used in a different way than their established technical sense elsewhere.

Rather, the purpose of the passage is to illustrate the role of right view, not right samadhi. That’s why the learning of the texts is emphasized at the beginning, and why the bodhisatta rejected “that teaching (dhamma)” at the end. The “noble quest” wasn’t a search for a cool meditation state, it was the search for the end of the cycle of rebirth. The whole narrative is framed around the doctrinal meaning and significance of the meditations, not the meditations themselves.


Such an important distinction for everyone to know and bear in mind!