Buddhas first jhana as a child

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.’

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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!


Note also that the description of childhood jhana is in MN36, whose story answers Sacca’s question:

“Surely you must have had feelings so pleasant or so painful that they could occupy your mind?”

In MN26, the story is about:

“Bhikkhus, there are these two kinds of search: the noble search and the ignoble search. …"

Of course, it’s common to paste these together, as Bhikkhu Bodhi does in Chapter II of In the Buddha’s Words: In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon Linked to SuttaCentral.net – Reading Faithfully. However as Bhante @Sujato says, we should pay attention to the question each sutta is addressing.

Note that there are other accounts of the search, Snp4.15, and awakening SN12.65, stories that address different aspects…