If jhana is total absorption without physical sensation, why is pain only abandoned in the fourth jhana?

Well, if we were to cleanse the translation of SN48.36 of all injections and implications, and leave it as bare as possible, then I think (it’s a dictionary translation, so it’s certainly very rough) it should look something like this:

The faculties of sukha, dukkha, somanassa, domanassa, upekkha.

And what, monks, is the faculty of sukha?
Whatever, monks, bodily sukha, a bodily agreeableness, an agreeableness of a feeling of the contact of the body, - this is called the faculty of sukha.

And what, monks, is the faculty of dukkha?
Whatever, monks, bodily dukkha, a bodily disagreeableness, a disagreeableness of a feeling of the contact of the body, - this is called the faculty of dukkha.

And what, monks, is the faculty of somanassa?
Whatever, monks, mental sukha, a mental agreeableness, an agreeableness of a feeling of the contact of the mind, - this is called the faculty of somanassa.

And what, monks, is the faculty of domanassa?
Whatever, monks, mental dukkha, a mental disareeableness, a disagreeableness of a feeling of the contact of the mind, - this is called the faculty of domanassa.

And what, monks, is the faculty of upekkha?
Whatever, monks, neither agreeableness nor disagreeableness of bodily or mental feeling, - this is called the faculty of upekkha.

If this translation is to be accepted, then I think it is not difficult to see that in such a reading the meaning of the passage becomes significantly different: from considering the body and mind as organs, and the qualities as qualities of the perceptions of these organs, to considering simply the immediate experience of sensations, some of which are perceived as bodily and some of which are perceived as mental. In other words, when it is spoken of jhana, it is not the cessation of physical perceptions that is meant, but the cessation of the agreeableness or disagreeableness of bodily and mental experiences.

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That’s not a problem in Pali. So, why should we make it a problem in English?

Ambiguity of words is common in languages. Context narrows their meaning. E.g, how do we translate kāmesu micchācāra"?

Just as kāma has a range of meanings in Pali, so does “sensuality” in English. I’m sure you’ve seen that yourself.

The same applies for sukha and its most apt English translation “happiness”.

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Bhante, you’ve misunderstood my saying the above. I mean to imply that the orthodox Theravada commentarial version of jhāna is different from that of the Suttas.

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Assuming by “deep Jhānas” you mean “absorption jhānas”, it’s not possible.

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Arrggh, discussions like this just make me want to meditate! :grin: :person_in_lotus_position: But I got feedback even in real life that it’s helpful to people who are confused about the topic, so I’ll stick around here a bit more. And exchanging thoughts on these subjects is also helpful for me, so thanks everybody.

Thanks for those links. :slightly_smiling_face: I will need to look into the venerable Pa Auk’s teachings a bit more one day, although I have to say it is exactly his strong reliance on the Visuddhimagga which has put me off till now. :face_with_open_eyes_and_hand_over_mouth:

As to the article on nimittas, I don’t have any problems with it. I actually agree that in the jhānas there are no lights. In the first jhāna the object is pīti-sukha, not a light or other nimittas. The nimittas are a way into jhanas, but not the jhānas themselves. That is likely one reason that the light nimittas aren’t mentioned super often in the suttas.

Another likely reason the suttas don’t often mention them is that the mind can represent itself in many ways to meditators. Lights are a common way, but they’re not a requisite. Nimittas can also be “sounds” or certain “bodily feelings” or metta or what have you. But these “sounds” aren’t heard by the ear, nor are the “bodily feelings” felt by the body: they’re all just representations (or reflections or “signs”) of the mind. Many people find it hard to describe this territory of meditation. This diversity in hard-to-describe experiences can also explain why the suttas don’t tend to pin themselves down to lights and forms alone. Notice also that the instructions in MN128 are given to three specific bhikkhus, not to the general populace like most other texts on meditation. The three experienced lights and forms, but that doesn’t mean everybody always does.

A third reason is that advanced meditators may be able to skip the stage of nimittas altogether. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Buddha for example was able to go straight into jhāna, skipping any kind of lights or other nimittas.

As to the article questioning whether nimitta in MN128 refers to the lights or idiomatically to the ‘cause’ of samādhi, I agree with Ven. Ānalayo in his comparative study of the sutta: “This sense of nimitta as a mental ‘sign’ or object used for the development of concentration would also fit the present context well, which describes meditative visions and the development of concentration. At a later point of its exposition, the Upakkilesa-sutta [MN128] in fact explicitly uses the term nimitta in order to refer to the vision of light and forms that Anuruddha and his companions had been unable to stabilize, a usage where nimitta clearly stands for a mental sign, for something that is perceived.” That is to say, it certainly doesn’t mean “cause” at that later instance, so Ven. Bodhi’s translation “you should understand the cause for that” is perhaps not literal enough, and it should be “you should penetrate that sign [nimitta]”, meaning basically what you said earlier, “absorb oneself in nimitta”, or “enter that nimitta”. (Edit some days later: I’m now more convinced Bodhi’s translation is more likely to be correct.)

Although MN128 is indeed the most explicit text on the nimittas, I don’t think it is alone in describing these experiences. I see references elsewhere too, though they don’t use the word nimitta: both in the Ānāpānassati and Satipaṭṭhāna Suttas, but particularly in the kasinas and “the eight bases of transcendence/mastery”.

First, in the Ānāpānassati Sutta (MN118) it says: “I’ll breathe in experiencing the mind.” This “experiencing the mind” refers in my experience to the same stage of meditation described in MN128. It’s not called a light or form here, because what you are actually experiencing when you “see” (or “hear” or “feel”) a nimitta is the mind itself. This instruction talks about the same thing as MN128, but more directly, bypassing the perception of light and going straight to what the light represents, which is the mind.

To continue, the subsequent instruction in ānāpānassati is “gladdening the mind”, which is the stabilizing of the lights that MN128 talks about. Put simply, it’s because of lacking gladness that the various hindrances take over. If the mind is truly glad, it won’t become sleepy, restless, distracted, and so forth.

Then the next step of Ānāpānassati is “samadhi-ing” the mind, unifying the mind, i.e. moving towards jhānas. In the next step the mind is “liberated”, which means the hindrances are completely abandoned and the mind enters the jhānas. (These two steps essentially go together.) The jhanas are also called temporary liberations of the mind (e.g. MN122), and this is what “liberating the mind” in Ānāpānassati refers to. It can’t mean liberation in the ultimate sense of ending of craving, because there are still contemplations to be done afterwards.

So the Ānāpānassati Sutta fits MN128 very well, in my view.

In the Satipaṭṭhāna Suttas I also see similar ideas to MN128 under the third factor of “mind”. For example, when MN128 mentions “loss of focus on forms” and “perception of diversity” those are examples of “the scattered mind” of the Satipaṭṭhāna Suttas.

Now, I may be opening another :canned_food: of :worm::worm:, but I also think the kasinas (which are not super common in the suttas but also not exactly rare), in later tradition taken to be physical disks, were originally meant to be mental perceptions we now call nimittas. For example, “the meditation on universal yellow” (AN10.25) would be a yellow light which takes up your whole awareness, the “universality” implying among other things that you don’t perceive the body anymore. (Kasina literally means ‘total’, hence Bhante Sujato’s translation “universal”. Perhaps “pervasive” gives a better sense of the meaning.)

The kasinas are not explained in much detail in the suttas, but in MN77 they precede the jhānas, so it seems they lead up to them, as is commonly assumed. Then they fit the lights and forms of MN128 extremely well, with ttese kasinas and nimittas both leading to samādhi. The various color “kasinas” are then the light nimittas (obhāsanimitta) of MN128, and the elemental kasinas (including space) being the form nimittas (rūpanimitta).

Also very tellingly, MN128 concludes the development of these nimittas with: “I perceive limitless (sañjānāmi appamāṇāni) lights and see limitless forms” and the kasinas are likely said to be “perceived as limitless” (sañjānāti appamāṇaṃ). Same words, same ideas. So the kasinas are what MN128 calls nimittas. A yellow kasina is a yellow nimitta, for example.

Another reference to nimittas seems to be the “eight bases for transcendence” (or “eight bases of mastery/overcoming”), for example at DN16, AN10.29. We again have mentions of “forms” and “perceptions”, and the word “limitless” reappears again here for the higher perceptions. The exact same colors as the “kasinas” are mentioned as well. So it’s quite clearly presenting the same idea as the kasinas, and therefore the same as MN128, which also talks about limitless perceptions of forms and lights (i.e. colors). Accordingly, Bhante Sujato notes on these “eight basis” at DN16: “The ‘visions’ (rūpā) seen externally are the lights or other meditation phenomena that today are usually called nimitta." (I’m not exactly sure why the nimittas are said to be “seen externally”, though. The commentaries seems to say it’s because they are opposed to the “internal” form of the body. :thinking: So then it’s external in the sense of being an external āyatana, a sense object, though it’s a mental one.)

In short, the nimittas are in other places too, not just in MN128, just under different names.

I’m well aware that some of these references are somewhat opaque, and I also still have some questions about them (so what I did say is subject to revision :smiley: ), but I think they make much more sense in light of the deeper jhanas which require nimittas, compared to the bodily jhanas where this sort of stuff is generally just seen as commentarial ideas that can be disregarded. But all these things are also all found in various parallels, so they clearly predate the commentaries by a long time, as is the case with MN128.

May I ask why you find MN128 “disturbing”? I hope I am not disturbing you even more! :speak_no_evil:


Nice to see you here too, Venerable. Those are good questions. We discussed this briefly before. Here are my thoughts.

SN48.40 is problematic for both interpretations of the jhānas, actually, because the “pleasure faculty” (sukha-indriya) is said to be abandoned already in the third jhāna, while sukha is normally said to be abandoned in the fourth. This is awkward no matter how we interpret the jhānas.

If we interpret the sukha of the third jhāna to be experienced “with the body”, then why does SN48.40 say the faculty of sukha (which SN48.36–39 define as bodily) has ceased in the third jhāna? If anything, this then actually confirms that the sukha of the third jhāna is not bodily, because it says there’s no more bodily sukha in the third jhāna. So the sukha of the third jhana must then be mental. :thinking:

But then the sukha of the second jhāna apparently is bodily? How does that make sense? Does the meaning of sukha shift between the jhānas? In the 1st and 2nd it is bodily but in the 3rd it is not? That seems strange. :woozy_face:

In AN5.176 all pleasure (sukha) and pain connected to the kāma are abandoned in the first jhāna already, so this includes bodily pleasure. This apparently contradicts SN48.40 as well.

It’s likewise strange why the faculty of domanassa (“sadness”) is said to be abandoned in the second jhana in SN48.40. This also contradicts AN5.176 which implies all domanassa (of the skillful and unskillful and of the sensual) is already abandoned in the first jhāna.

Now, the answer may be authenticity, as you suggest when you say “at least one must be wrong”.

But if we assume the text is authentic, then I would reply that the bodily sukha is already abandoned in the first jhana, but in SN48.40 it’s linked to the third jhāna exactly to make the point that the sukha that still exists in the third jhāna is NOT bodily. In other words, bodily sukha was already gone at first jhana, but to emphasize that sukha in the third jhana is mental, it’s stated specifically before the third jhana that bodily sukha has ceased there.

Because technically speaking the text actually does not say that bodily sukha still exists in the earlier jhanas (although we may imply that). It just says that it has ceased in the third. That’s being a bit pedantic, but it does seem to me the best way to resolve the issue. And it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that the Buddha is being creative with how he phrased things.

Maybe somebody else has some more satisfying resolution. But for now, I think this text is actually most problematic for the bodily jhana view.


It is not really a problem. My point is just that when we try to discover the meaning of a concept, we need to translate as explicitly as possible so as to see how the rendering works. In other words, this concerns interpretation, not necessarily translation.

The commentaries may occasionally underestimate the importance of jhāna, but this does not automatically mean they misunderstand its character.

Anyway, thanks for engaging! Hopefully we are both learning something. :slightly_smiling_face:


Sunyo. AN 5.176 does not sound related to jhana. It reads as a teaching for householders that does not go beyond rapture. Rapture in the suttas does not always refer to jhana, as in SN 12.23.

Sunyo. The sukha-faculty in the framework of SN 48.40 must include piti-sukha rather than only sukha. Also, more importantly, the meaning of the word ‘indriya’ meaning ‘controlling’ may need to be examined with yonisomanasikara. It looks like run-of-the-mill Abhidhamma & Commentary style scholarship that makes synonyms out of various words is not an appropriate EBT approach to EBT scholarship.

Similarly, as for SN 48.40 in its entirety, not that we may likely agree, but:

  • it is either using the words samudaya & nirodha in a corrupted manner, similar to in the Piltdown Sutta MN 10 & Abhidhamma, where samudaya, jati & uppajjati or nirodha & vaya look treated as synonyms; or
  • it is using samudaya & nirodha in a proper manner (as in SN 22.5 & most places; as explained by the Elder Venerable Payutto) and is referring to something beyond the mere uppajjati of the jhana factors because the terms samudaya (as in SN 22.5) & nirodha are generally used in relation to attachment & other unwholesome states.
  • To add, SN 48.40, unique to the suttas, includes the words sanimittaṁ sanidānaṁ sasaṅkhāraṁ sappaccayaṁ. The words sound similar to the more common words kiṁnidāno kiṁsamudayo kiṁjātiko kiṁpabhavo, which look only used in relation to unwholesome states, unless I am mistaken. In SN 48.40, the use of the words nimitta & saṅkhāra looks particularly interesting and might refer to some type of mental formation or view giving a ‘controlling power’ (‘indriya’) to the respective feelings. The word ‘nimitta’ as ‘sign’ is often used as a controlling power over the mind.
  • To conclude, SN 48.40 may be saying, in the 3rd jhana, the power of feelings to control/dictate (‘indriya’) the mind ceases (nirodha) when rapture (piti) ceases.
  • I recall Ajahn Buddhadasa in his renowned book titled: Anapanasati Unveiling The Secrets of Life For Serious Beginners discussed the matter of piti vs sukha; how sukha is peaceful but piti impacts the mind less peacefully. The Elder Ajahn said:

The important quality of piti for you to be aware of is that it is not peacefu1. There is a kind of excitement or disturbance in the thing, called piti. Only when it becomes sukha is it tranquil. Piti has varying levels but all are characterized as stimulating, as causing the citta to shake. Sukha is the opposite. It calms and soothes the mind. This is how piti and sukha differ.The most important thing to study and observe is the power piti has over the mind. …What influence does piti have on the mind and thoughts? Carefully observe how the mind is when piti has not arisen. Once piti arises, what is the citta like? What is the effect of a lot of piti? How is the mind when there is only a little piti? When piti is heavy, especially rapture, how much more does it stimulate the mind? Study the coarse kinds of piti, medium levels, and the finest types, to see how they differ. Then, see how their influence upon the mind differs. This is the crucial point of this step of practice.

Bhikkhu Buddhadasa - Anapanasati Mindfulness with Breathing

Thus, when it comes to the 4th jhana, the author of the sutta has chosen to use somanassa as the primary subject and ignored the sukha.

It looks very unlikely the author of SN 48.40 would make an error by saying sukha vedana is felt in the 3rd jhana but also say the faculty of sukha has ceased (nirodha) in the 3rd jhana if ‘vedana’ & ‘indriya’ were synonymous. It looks like regarding sukha vedana to be a synonym of sukha indriya and also regarding uppajjati & samudaya to also be synonyms is possibly an error.

If samudaya & uppajjati and nirodha & vaya are regarded to be synonymous, in an Abhidhamma, Commentary or MN 10 manner, SN 48.40 will look problematic. But if the more nuanced Elder Buddhadasa or Payutto approach is taken, the problematicness of SN 48.40 will cease (nirodha). :raised_hands:

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I’ve read MN128 and I’ve noticed the Buddha say that the reason for the disappearance of his vision of lights and forms is his loss of immersion due to the various corruptions.

If the nimittas were the way into jhana, the jhana would disappear with the loss of the nimitta and not the other way around. :thinking:


I do think they understand the character of jhāna as they understand it. That is why they regard it as optional.

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Venerable @Sunyo , I thank you with all my heart for your work, I am extremely grateful.

At the time, I was a little perturbed by the Buddha’s explicit insistence on the use of light and form to attain jhana, whereas this technique is not as clearly and explicitly described in other sutta: I found it a little hard to understand where this technique stood in relation to other techniques.

Anyway, you’re not confusing me at all, on the contrary. It’s really wonderful for us that you’ve come to answer our questions, you’re helping a lot of people, and as I’ve already said, this topic will certainly be read a lot in the future, so that even more people will be helped. That goes for all the Venerables - @kumara
, @sabbamitta , @Brahmali , @NgXinZhao, etc. - who post here: you’re all real lights for beings. I couldn’t have hoped you’d be here! All these debates are extremely useful, I assure you. Thanks again!!!


Perhaps we first need to have sufficient (non-jhanic) concentration to make nimitta appear and stabilize nimitta, and once nimitta appears and is stable, nimitta can be used to intensify concentration and thus attain jhana.
This means that if the starting (non-jhanic) concentration is not high enough, nimitta may disappear; and if nimitta has been achieved, but is eventually lost, then this may prevent concentration intensification (no appearance of jhana), or even decrease it.
This is a hypothesis.

Please, does anyone know if ancient schools of Buddhism have asserted that jhanas are felt in the physical body? I had read somewhere that Sautrantika had supported this position, but I’m not sure.

They did argue that, yes. In the Dhyana sutras the body is still experienced, albeit in an almost translucent way. It’s a subtle body, like those in the Brahma realms. I’m also reminded of Paul’s argument regarding Christ having a “spiritual body”.

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MN 128 isn’t about the commentarial idea of nimittas. It’s about seeing devas, so psychic powers. Sometimes in the suttas the psychic powers are presented as coming before the Jhanas. There is no talk of nimittas in that sense in the earliest texts. Doesn’t mean it’s wrong to say they occur, it’s just they aren’t there in the suttas/sutras. It’s only in the Abhidharma works and commentaries that they make an appearance.

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Do you mean that they regard them as optional because they see them as difficult to attain? If so, it’s a bad reason.


Thank you very much !

Please, why do you think this speaks of devas?

I agree rapture (pīti) doesn’t always refer to jhānas. However, here it is mentioned in combination with “seclusion” (viveka) and “sense objects” (kāma) and “unskillful qualities”. Those all are terms used in the jhana formulas, so that must be what’s meant here, it seems to me. It’s the “rapture (and bliss) born of seclusion” mentioned in the standard jhāna formula. See also MN102, where this “rapture born of seclusion” is also mentioned.

But that’s exactly how it’s defined in SN48.36–39: “And what is the faculty of pleasure? Physical enjoyment, physical pleasure, the enjoyable, pleasant feeling that’s born from physical contact.”

There also isn’t a real difference between nirodha and vaya. I don’t think this is the right place to discuss this, though. I believe Ven. Sujato addressed these ideas here.

It’s commonly acknowledged that the word samādhi (“immersion” per Sujato) doesn’t always refer to the jhānas. The samādhi that’s lost here refers to pre-jhāna samādhi, in my eyes. The jhānas (i.e. right samādhi) are only achieved at the end, when the Buddha says : “I’ve given up my mental corruptions. Now let me develop immersion in three ways.’ I developed immersion while placing the mind and keeping it connected; without placing the mind, but just keeping it connected; without placing the mind or keeping it connected; with rapture; without rapture; with pleasure; with equanimity.” The nimittas are pretty close though, so they can also be called samādhi, though not samma samādhi.

Edit: exactly what @DeadBuddha also suggested.

Anyway, so you do think there are always these light/form nimittas inside the jhānas, then? Or how do you interpret MN128?

Aha. :slight_smile: So venerables :pray:, you both agree the commentaries got something wrong: either the nature of jhānas as meant by the Buddha, or whether one needs jhānas for awakening.

The difference between these two I think is worth considering, though. The nature of the jhānas is something we can directly experience (and I think the compilers of the commentaries did just that). However, whether everybody in the world needs jhānas for awakening, cannot be more than a theory or something taken on faith (unless perhaps the person became fully enlightened without jhānas themself, or unless they have some special Buddha-like power to know the minds of all beings).

Another difference is that the jhānas are an intrinsic part of the eightfold path. Whether everybody needs them or not is—again—just a theory. Interesting to consider perhaps, but not really a major pragmatic concern, I don’t think.

Well, I’ll join the both of you: I disagree with some things in the commentaries as well. :yum: But for what it’s worth, I myself am quite happy that my ordination tradition agrees with my understanding of the pragmatic part of the jhānas, and that it also sees it reflected in the suttas, like I do. That it disagrees on a theory about beings in general, I don’t really mind. (I’m also not 100% convinced that it would be impossible to become awakened without jhānas, exactly because I don’t have the power to know, and will probably never have.)

Anyway, we’re discussing the commentaries, which isn’t really a major concern for all of us, I’m pretty sure, since this is SuttaCentral after all. So let’s recall how we got here. Venerable @Kumara, you said that the definition of kāma (plural) as the sense objects in the Critical Pāli Dictionary (though you mistook it to be Cone’s,), was only held by those who follow Ajahn Brahm or the commentaries. That just isn’t true, I don’t think. Aside from the examples I gave earlier, we got an example right here in this thread, namely Ceisiwr, and there are surely many others. I think it has also been shown in this thread how this definition of the Critical Dictionary is very well supported by the suttas. Unless I missed it, there’s not been evidence to the contrary, just a suggestion to translate it as “sensualities”. (And perhaps we should also keep in mind which intellectuals wrote and edited the Critical Dictionary, especially the volume that contains kāma. I mean, these people each individually understood Pāli better than I ever will, let alone as a team effort.)

I’ve looked at your book as you asked me to, Venerable, but I still don’t understand what “separation from sensualities” pragmatically means to you. Can you explain? :smiling_face: Sorry, but I find this very vague English. You can blame me for that, perhaps, since I’m not a native speaker. But in more than a decade of using the language in daily speech I don’t think I’ve never heard anybody use ‘sensuality’ in the plural in normal speech.

You have a great ability to get across in writing your sincerity very well. I hope I can do likewise when I thank you for all the good questions, neutrality, and patience.

Also, if you (or others) are interested, a book of transcripted talks on these topics (talks by Ajahn Brahmali and me) is in the works. No promises, and I don’t know how long the people will take, but you may want to keep an eye out. :upside_down_face: It’s going to be good stuff, I think. :yum: (The talks addressed a more general audience, though, not as specific as this thread.)

I believe the Vimuttimagga suggested this too, but a big problem with this is thāt there is no mention of devas or divine eye in the text at all.

But it does mention developing the jhānas, and that’s exactly what the practical instructions of the sutta end with (followed by the Buddha’s awakening). When the divine eye is mentioned in the suttas, it always follows the jhanas. These light and form nimittas are before the jhanas, so that’s another indication that they’re something different.

I’ll let Ceisiwr answer, but I believe there’s an AN sutta that mentions visions and forms, and there those are indeed of devas. But imo that’s a completely different context, one that doesn’t apply to MN128.

I think another argument that’s sometimes brought up for this, is that MN128 was spoken to Anuruddha, who was famous for his ability to see devas. However, that’s a very weak and roundabout argument; I don’t think I need to explain why. Anuruddha also attained the jhanas, and that’s what he’s been taught here, not the divine eye.

I mean, the sutta is all about abandoning the hindrances and developing samādhi (samādhiṁ bhāvemi), how much clearer do we need the texts to be? :slight_smile:

Anyway, all you lovely people :smiling_face_with_three_hearts: thanks all for your contributions. Unless some really interesting replies come up, I’ll not be responding here for a while, to spend some more time actually practicing what I preach. :grin: (I’ll continue to read along, though.)


I am also interested to learn about the pragmatic or phenomenological meaning of separation from sensuality when it is something else than the separation from the five senses.

Just to give some context, the disappearance of the five senses seems like such a clear experiential threshold. It must be very unambiguous whether the five senses are experienced or not; like night and day.

Epistemologically, it also seems logical to me how “hard” jhanas gives insight into Dhamma: it seems like the hard jhana itself would be a direct experience of the five senses being causally dependent on the five hindrances. Like, experientially, the 5-sense-world (kamaloka) feels stable and persistent, but after a hard jhana I would guess that it could feel fickle and unreliable instead. Aka a direct experience of impermanence.

Moreover, logically, if the inventory of experience can be seen to vanish and reappear based on causes, I can see how this would challenge beliefs about a permanent self/essence within the five khandas.

So, it is relatively easy for me to imagine how “hard” jhanas could work within the EBT Dhamma-system to produce awakening outcomes like no longer holding self views.

With “soft” jhanas, it is harder for me to imagine experiential criteria for when they obtain. I also struggle to understand how they produce awakening outcomes.

Like, how can you tell when you’re in a soft jhana? How do they produce awakening outcomes? :slight_smile: :pray: