Is Sound Heard When Engaging in the Jhānas?

Some meditators, by conviction of their own experience, say we can’t hear sound when engaging in the jhānas, not even the first one. I agree; it’s true for the complete absorption, Visuddhi­magga jhāna.

However, some among them claim they are going by the Suttas, citing a statement in Kaṇṭaka Sutta (AN10.72): “Sound is a thorn (kaṇṭaka) to the first jhāna.”[1] (Both “thorn” and “kaṇṭaka” carry the figurative meaning of “source of discomfort” or “bother”.) They seem to interpret the statement as “Sound hinders one from attaining the first jhāna”. Then upon attaining the first jhāna (and by logic the rest too), one isn’t supposed to hear any sound. But is this view supported by that sutta statement?

Firstly, if it is speaking of sound hindering one’s attaining of the first jhāna, that means there’s no jhāna yet. If there’s no jhāna, then what is there for sound to be a thorn to? Besides, if that interpretation is correct, sound wouldn’t be a thorn; it would be a hindrance.

Secondly, if it does mean one can’t hear any sound upon attaining the first jhāna, then sound wouldn’t be a thorn or bother at all. How can sound bother one who can’t hear it?

So, actually, saying that sound is a thorn or bother to the first jhāna doesn’t mean one can’t hear sound in the first jhāna; it means one can!

To be sure that this understanding is correct, we can refer to other ‘thorny’ statements in the sutta. For example, just before the statement quoted above, we find “Proximity with womenfolk (mātugāmūpacāra) is a thorn to the divine-practice (brahmacariya).” (The Buddha must be speaking to monks only then.) Does that mean men of divine-practice, such as Buddhist monks, are disabled from noticing women near them? Hasn’t happened to me yet.

So the sutta statement “Sound is a thorn to the first jhāna” does not support the idea that we can’t hear sounds in the Sutta jhāna. Instead, it supports the opposite. Nonetheless, one can rightly say sound can’t be heard in the absorption jhāna.

In the same sutta, we find that sound is not a thorn to the second jhāna or higher. Does that mean sound can’t be heard in those jhānas? Not so. It just means that to higher jhānas, sound is not a thorn, not a source of discomfort, not a bother.[2]

  1. paṭhamassa jhānassa saddo kaṇṭako. Although s adda generally means “sound”, it can also specifically mean “noise”. In fact, this may be the actual meaning here going by the context in the sutta, in which the Buddha spoke in response to an occasion where many well-known Licchavis who arrived to see him were uccāsaddā mahāsaddā, literally “of high sound, of great sound”. In other words, they were very noisy. In NDB, sadda is translated as “noise”.

  2. For a more thorough analysis of this subject, read “Silence Isn’t Mandatory” in a collection titled Noble & True by Ajahn Ṭhānissaro: eBooks | Interestingly, we’ve separately arrived at many similar arguments.

The above is from Appendix 6 of my book: What You Might Not Know about Jhāna & Samādhi.


Excellent book, and interesting post.

Anumodana Sadhu :pray:

Something relevant from the book’s content proper:

“Bhikkhus, possessed of five things a bhikkhu is unable to abide engaging in proper composure (sammā·samādhiṁ upasampajja viharituṁ). What five? Here, a bhikkhu is intolerant of [visual] forms, intolerant of sounds, intolerant of odours, intolerant of tastes, intolerant of physical sensations. Possessed with these five things a bhikkhu is unable to abide engaging in proper composure.”

“Bhikkhus, possessed of five things a bhikkhu is able to abide engaging in proper composure. What five? Here, a bhikkhu is tolerant of [visual] forms, tolerant of sounds, tolerant of odours, tolerant of tastes, tolerant of physical sensations. Possessed with these five things a bhikkhu is able to abide engaging in proper composure.”

~ Sammā·samādhi Sutta (AN5.113)

In other words, to abide engaging in proper composure, i.e. the four jhānas, we need to accept five-sense impingements. After all, as Ajahn Chah and Sayadaw U Tejaniya both say, “Sound is just sound.” Such a right view allows one to be tolerant. Besides, the above sutta obviously presupposes that one experiences the five senses in the jhānas. Otherwise, one wouldn’t have their objects to be tolerant of.

1 Like

Tolerating the senses can be achieved by mitigating sense consciousness at the point of perception.

I know from experience that that’s not necessary.

Hi Bhante, :pray:

I tend to disagree. :thinking:

If you say sounds can exist in the first jhāna, then by analogy vitakka-vicāra can exist in the second, and pīti can exist in the third. In other words, if we take this sutta to say sound is just a nuisance in the first jhānas instead of being non-existent, then vitakka-vicāra is also just a nuisance in the second jhānas and pīti a nuisance in the third. (And further, if we’d argue sounds exist in all jhānas, then vitakka-vicāra also exists in all jhanas.)

The argument that ‘thorns’ in this context means just a nuisance was made by what were called the Pubbaseliyas and refuted by the Theravada already in the Abhidhamma:

Now it was further said that thought applied and sustained is a thorn for Second Jhāna—does one in Second Jhāna have applied and sustained thought? […] Now is ‘the thorn’ actually present on the winning of the stage whence it is pronounced to be a thorn? If not, then how can you say that the ‘thorn’ of hearing sound is present to one in First Jhāna?

Perhaps you can address this argument instead of bringing it down to “proximity with womenfolk is a thorn”, where the thorn is used outside of jhāna context, in a different sense I agree.

Notice also this is not “by conviction of their own experience”. It is an argument based on the sutta itself.

the Buddha spoke in response to an occasion where many well-known Licchavis who arrived to see him were uccāsaddā mahāsaddā, literally “of high sound, of great sound”. In other words, they were very noisy.

Yes, mahā-saddā (“great sound”) is noise. But here the thorn is just sadda. Maybe somewhere in the suttas that also means a noise, I don’t know, but at least 99% of the time it just means sound as an object of the ear. If it meant noise, then that should be clarified somehow, like by calling it “mahā-sadda”.

It seems you translate upasampajja as “engaging”, but that’s not what it means. Taking upasampada as a monk means to enter monkhood, not to “engage” in it, for example. So the sutta doesn’t say you have to tolerate these things “engaging” in samādhi, it says if you are unable to tolerate them you are unable to enter samādhi. That’s different.

The pragmatic point I take from this sutta is, if these things don’t bother you, it won’t give rise to hindrances, specifically ill will and sensual desire. And if they don’t bother you, you can also let them go. If you constantly get annoyed by that itch or that ticking clock, it’s a form of sensual attachment, and as a result you can’t let go of the body. It will stay in your awareness or keep coming back. To let them go and have them fade from awareness, you have to tolerate them first.

I find it interesting that the mind isn’t mentioned in the list. Many meditators struggle much more with their mind than body! So why isn’t it included? We can only guess, but I would say it’s because to enter jhāna you let go of the five senses in a different way than you let go of the mind.

For more arguments that sounds aren’t present in jhāna people can read “Absorption and Hearing Sound” in Anālayo’s Early Buddhist Meditation Studies.

May you have a happy Asalha Puja and rains, Bhante! :slightly_smiling_face:


Why just “sound”? Why not all the senses?

1 Like

Yes, this seems a very important point.
How many times have we been irritated by a sound, and someone else has said, “I didn’t even notice it!”

1 Like

Hi Venerable,

What you’re saying seems relevant, I’d been thinking the same thing myself.

But maybe we can say that a “thorn” is “one thing making another thing difficult”, so that, for example:

  • a bad show makes it difficult to protect the senses for the one protecting his senses

  • being close to women makes it difficult to practice celibacy for the one who practices celibacy.

and for example, concerning jhanas:

  • sound makes the first jhana difficult

  • vitakka and vicara make the second jhana difficult

  • perception and feeling make “cessation of perception and feeling” difficult.

But reading this, one might ask: when X is a “thorn” (= “thing making another thing difficult”) to a jhana, does this mean that “this thorn does not exist during the jhana and only exists outside the jhana, so the thorn prevents us from entering the jhana, but once in the jhana, the jhana can no longer be made difficult (since the thorn cannot exist there)”? Or does it mean that when X is a thorn at a jhana, “this thorn has the possibility to exist during the jhana and that even once in the jhana, the thorn can make the jhana difficult”?

For me, if we try to answer this question with this sutta alone, we can’t know. The sutta doesn’t tell us clearly whether or not the thorn of a jhana can exist during the jhana in question. For example, it does not tell us whether vitakka and vicara can exist during the second jhana.

But of course, this does not prevent us from making links with other suttas. And indeed, if we make links with other suttas, it turns out that the thorn of the second jhana cannot exist during the second jhana (likewise for the thorn of the third jhana towards the third jhana, the fourth thorn towards the fourth jhana, etc., until “cessation of perception and feeling”).

So thanks to the other suttas, the answer to the question is “for jhanas 2 to 9, the thorn cannot exist during jhana, but only outside jhana”.

However, personally, I haven’t found any sutta clearly stating that one cannot have sound during the first jhana (setting aside AN 10.72, since this is precisely what we’re studying). This is why I personally cannot say “for the first jhana, the thorn - the sound - cannot exist during the jhana, but only outside the jhana”.

This means that for me, unlike the other jhanas, the “thorn of the first jhana” (quoted in AN 10.72) has a different status from the other jhanas: the difference is that unlike the others, I cannot say that it cannot exist during jhana.

So I think AN 10.72 neither proves that there is no sound during jhana, nor proves that there can be sound during jhana.

However, it’s true that when I read the sutta like this, I really have a strong urge to say that the thorn of the first jhana is like those of the other jhanas: “it can’t exist during jhana, since this is more harmonious compared to the other jhanas”. But I don’t think I should go along with that, because in view of what I’ve said, it doesn’t seem prudent. It’s a bit like when you told me about John and his breakfast in bed: you have to be careful and not take shortcuts. I think that applies here too.

And I think I’m so interested in the jhanas debate, that when I see AN 10.72, I read it with that debate in mind, with the desire to know whether jhanas are bodily or not, so that I instinctively analyze the sutta as if to say to myself that “if the Buddha is talking about sound in relation to jhana, the Buddha necessarily meant to say that sound may or may not exist during jhana”. But when the Buddha gave his discourse (from AN 10.72), he didn’t necessarily have in mind the debates on bodily/non-bodily jhanas, so I have to be careful not to attribute to the Buddha intentions he doesn’t have.


When I wrote this, I was thinking only of people who have actual experience of absorption, not those who can only speak on the matter theoretically.

1 Like