Does the Buddha ever mention Nimittas in the Suttas?

I’ve been reading and practising Breathing meditation in accordance with Ajahn Brahm’s book. I’ve found the book and the teachings extremely practical to guide my meditation. But since I also read the Suttas, Ive been wondering wether Nimittas as mentioned by Ajahn Brahm can be found in the Suttas. Did the Buddha ever mention Nimittas or is Nimittas only found in later commentaries?

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‘Nimitta’ are not mentioned in the suttas but the suttas mention ‘ekaggata’. I think if we study the literature on nimitta it will be found they are the equivalent of ekaggata, namely, the nimitta performs the role of silencing, fixing (anchoring) & stilling the ordinarily discursive (thinking) part of the mind.

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There are some suttas that mention them:

MN128 Upakkilesa sutta:

‘When I don’t focus on the foundation of the forms, but focus on the foundation of the light, then I perceive light and do not see forms.

‘yasmiñhi kho ahaṁ samaye rūpanimittaṁ amanasikaritvā obhāsanimittaṁ manasi karomi, obhāsañhi kho tasmiṁ samaye sañjānāmi, na ca rūpāni passāmi.

If you’re a fan of Ajahn Brahm, I highly recommend listen to his sutta class on MN128 Upakkilesa sutta, because he says in them that it is his favorite sutta exactly because nimittas are in it. So it is very importaint sutta for him.

AN9.35 Gāvīupamā sutta:

In the same way, some foolish, incompetent, unskillful mendicant, lacking common sense, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unskillful qualities, enters and remains in the first absorption, which has the rapture and bliss born of seclusion, while placing the mind and keeping it connected.

But they don’t cultivate, develop, and make much of that foundation; they don’t ensure it is properly stabilized.
so taṁ nimittaṁ na āsevati na bhāveti na bahulīkaroti na svādhiṭṭhitaṁ adhiṭṭhāti.

Also, there is lots about so called samadhi-nimitta in the commentarial tradition of Theravada, like Vimuttimagga, Visuddhimagga:

When he does so in this way, the sign soon appears to him. But it is not the same for all; on the contrary, some say that when it appears it does so to certain people producing a light touch like cotton or silk-cotton or a draught. But this is the exposition given in the commentaries: It appears to some like a star or a cluster of gems or a cluster of pearls, to others with a rough touch like that of silk-cotton seeds or a peg made of heartwood, to others like a long braid string or a wreath of flowers or a puff of smoke, to others like a stretched out cobweb or a film of cloud or a lotus flower or a chariot wheel or the moon’s disk or the sun’s disk. [Vism pp. 277-278]

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 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. [Vism pp. 120]

In pali texts term “nimitta” have various meanings and is rarely used as commentarial samadhi-nimitta. Peter Harvey - “Singlness meditations in Pali Buddhism” is a very good article about it. Just read the V chapter: The Meaning of Nimitta.

Relevant passage about samadhi-nimitta (only 1 of 10 meanings of nimitta in the suttas):

x) The object of concentration in samatha meditation: this is well attested in the commentarial literature, e.g., at Vism. 125-6: in concentrating on an external device, such as a clay disc, the device itself is the “preliminary” nimitta; by concentrating on it, the meditator comes to see a mental image of it, even with closed eyes-this is the “learning”
nimitta: by his concentrating on this, it appears in a purified, abstracted form, the “counterpart” nimitta. In the latter two cases, the nimitta can be seen as a “reflex image,” which is both a “sign” that the meditation is proceeding well and the “target” of concentration. Such samadhi-nimittas are also alluded to in the suttas. The “pre-liminary” sign is alluded to at Ps.II.38, which says, “Here, someone gives attention to the nimitta of blue-black internally in himself,” the commentary explaining this to mean a person’s hair. A reflex-image nimitta is referred to, e.g., at A.IV.418 [AN9.35], on a monk who is unskilled at entering on and dwelling in the first jhana:" he does not pursue, nor develop, nor cultivate that nimitta.

With Metta :slight_smile: :yellow_heart:

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There is samatha (calm) nimitta and abyagga (non-distraction aka ekaggata) nimitta in SN 46.51 and SN 46.2

Light and vision is not a sign of jhana, it’s a sign of abhinna/nanadassana (knowledge). The suttas say the Buddha focused on light and forms to see devas and purify knowledge, so I don’t think that’s jhana related specifically. I disagree with interpretations that tell you to focus on light to enter jhana.

Personally I think the nimittas for jhana are the 5 factors themselves (vitakka, vicara, piti, sukha, ekaggata), with samatha (calm) and non-distraction being the main ones.

No, nimitta in the sense of “radiant light seen as the precursor to jhana” does not occur in the suttas. What we call nimitta is, in the suttas, called rūpa or obhāsa.

Generally speaking, in meditation contexts, nimitta means “an aspect of experience that, when attended to, promotes the growth of similar or related qualities”. To give rise to energy, for example, you pay attention to the paggahanimitta, i.e. you do the kinds of energetic things that help rouse further energy. To make the mind peaceful you attend to the samathanimitta, i.e. to peaceful and calming things like the breath. It is in this sense that satipatthana is the samādhinimitta ("the foundation for samādhi), i.e. the practice of satipatthana meditation leads to jhana.

Previous discussions:

I’m afraid Ajahn Brahm is mistaken. In this passage, nimitta means “basis, cause, reason”. The passage is about understanding the reasons why the “light” (i.e. obhāsa, i.e. what the Visuddhimagga calls nimitta) arises or passes away. Surely this is one of the passages that influenced the later usage, but it is still a distinct sense.

Here the word nimitta is the first jhana itself, not the “nimitta” for the first jhana. The phrase taṁ nimittaṁ must refer back to something in the previous statement, which refers solely to the first jhana, not to any “light nimitta”.

In this case, the point is that the first jhana is the basis or foundation for further development of samadhi. So it must be stabilized and grounded before the second jhana can be realized.


For those of historical bent, I first wrote about this more than twenty years ago, in A Swift Pair of Messengers. Time flies!

Nimitta in the suttas probably never means ‘radiant reflex image in meditation’. This was referred to rather as ‘light and vision of forms’, the ‘radiant mind’, etc. The commentarial usage of nimitta for this light is possibly influenced by such passages as this.

‘When, good sirs, the nimittas are seen, illumination is born, and light manifests, then Brahma will manifest.’

At AN 5.193 the various pollutants and disturbances to water, compared with the five hindrances, prevent one from seeing ‘the nimitta (reflection) of one’s own face’. The commentarial term ‘apprehending sign’ (uggaha nimitta) was possible derived from passages such as AN 6.68 and SN 47.8; but here the meaning seems to be ‘apprehending the character of the mind’, how the mind responds to various ‘foods’. AN 6.68 shows that ‘apprehending the nimitta of the mind’ is a preliminary stage of meditation, before fulfilling right view and then right samādhi. In at least some meditation contexts nimitta just means ‘cause’. It refers to some quality, aspect, or feature of experience which, when paid attention to, promotes the growth of a similar or related quality. This meaning fits in well with the contexts in this work, so I have adopted the rendering ‘basis’ rather than ‘sign’, which does not carry a causal implication. AN 3.19 says that a monk who does not ‘carefully resolve’ on their samādhi nimitta (here = meditation subject, perhaps satipaṭṭhāna) in the morning, midday, or evening cannot grow in good qualities. At MN 128.28 the phrase ‘I pay attention to the light-nimitta’ occurs, but even here I would regard the term ‘attention’ as hinting at a causal implication, consistent with the usage in the sutta.

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MN 128 seems to be about Anuruddha’s development of psychic powers.

AN 4.41 may offer some insight. Note: AN 4.41 refers to jhana development as the 1st samadhi development therefore the 2nd samadhi development below seems obviously not jhana:

And what is the way of developing immersion further that leads to gaining knowledge and vision?

Katamā ca, bhikkhave, samādhibhāvanā bhāvitā bahulīkatā ñāṇadassanappaṭilābhāya saṁvattati?

It’s when a mendicant focuses on the perception of light, concentrating on the perception of day,

Idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu ālokasaññaṁ manasi karoti, divāsaññaṁ adhiṭṭhāti—

regardless of whether it’s night or day.

yathā divā tathā rattiṁ, yathā rattiṁ tathā divā.

And so, with an open and unenveloped heart, they develop a mind that’s full of radiance.

Iti vivaṭena cetasā apariyonaddhena sappabhāsaṁ cittaṁ bhāveti.

This is the way of developing immersion further that leads to gaining knowledge and vision.

Ayaṁ, bhikkhave, samādhibhāvanā bhāvitā bahulīkatā ñāṇadassanappaṭilābhāya saṁvattati.

AN 4.41

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Yes, also AN 8.64 is another sutta where the Buddha talks about light and forms having to do with purifying nanadassana in order to speak with devas and learn about kamma.

So I think light has more to do with knowledge and psychic powers.

Then it occurred to me, ‘What if I were to both perceive light and see visions? Then my knowledge and vision would become even more purified.’

So after some time, living alone, withdrawn, diligent, keen, and resolute, I perceived light and saw visions. But I didn’t associate with those deities, converse, or engage in discussion.

And this is what I also think MN 128 is referring to, not jhanas.

Nimitta is used in the sense of “sign” in a few Agamas, at least as far as the Chinese translators were concerned, so that may indicate indirectly where the later Theravada tradition picked up the usage: Sarvastivadins.

I recall from ancient history Buddhadasa translated the above in this AN 4.41 context as a psychic power of “knowing & seeing” rather than as the wisdom of “knowledge & vision” (relevant to SN 56.11). Since you seem to be a follower of Buddhadasa, you can try asking the translator Santikaro (santi@kevalaretreat.org) if he still has his ancient translation of Buddhadasa’s “The Style of Practice at Suan Mokkh” which was once included in one of Santikaro’s booklets called ‘Evolution Liberation’ (from memory #1, with the white & blue cover). Here, Buddhadasa discussed the Four Samadhi Bhavana found in AN 4.41; emphasizing the later two. :slightly_smiling_face:

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This not quite right. What this is referring to is the patibhaga-nimitta of anapanasati Meditation. I am not aware of the two terms ‘Samadhi-nimitta’ and ‘patibhaga-nimitta’ being equated together, not atleast in the Visuddhimagga.

But i dont think its wrong to call any ‘patibhaga-nimitta’ an attribute or sign of Samadhi in Meditations where they occur. Like in the following sense.

Well, householder, you have the features, attributes, and signs of a householder.”

Te hi te, gahapati, ākārā, te liṅgā, te nimittā yathā taṁ gahapatissā”ti.

MN54

I have not investigated this thoroughly by any means, but I point you to an essay written by one of my primary teachers: Ajahn Sona. It is called “The Mystery of the Breath Nimitta” and it can be found on Birken Forest Monastery’s Dhamma Resources webpage.