I’ve occasionally come across the advice that one should not discuss meditative experiences, such as the jhana states, nimittas, etc., with other people. Is there a sutta in which the Buddha says this, or is this a later commentarial or contemporary addition? Thank you in advance for any guidance.
Anguttara Nikaya 4.77
Link to Sutta: AN 4.77 The Acinteyyasutta / Unthinkable
Really this is about the four imponderables. It’s more about the inquiry into the depths of one in jhana states rather than whether or not one should discuss meditative experiences with others, but I’ve linked it for convenience.
Thank you! I see that the textual reference states that one should not contemplate “The jhana-range of a person in jhana…” and this is interpreted by Thanissaro Bhikkhu in his footnote (Acintita Sutta: Unconjecturable) as " the range of powers that one may obtain while absorbed in jhana" This is slightly different from the concept of “depth” of jhana state, but is related in some ways.
In addition, the Buddha is advising us that these “are not to be conjectured about”. However, that is different than sharing one’s actual experience, which is not conjecture. I bring this up because sharing one’s experience is an important part of the meditation learning process, both for oneself and for others. It’s like knowing how to ride a bicycle, but not being allowed to describe your experience to others. That makes it a bit hard for others to learn.
The fact that discussion of personal experience does not occur in the suttas indicates it’s not a constructive practice.
Bikkhu Bodhi has a course in the gradual training, “Models to the path to Liberation in Early Buddhism,” the question could be put to him.
In MN118, there is mention: “Then the elder monks taught & instructed the new monks even more intensely. Some elder monks were teaching & instructing ten monks, some were teaching & instructing twenty monks, some were teaching & instructing thirty monks, some were teaching & instructing forty monks.” It would seem that discussion of personal experience likely occurred during that teaching.
There are other examples where the personal experience of the monks is shared–indeed, the Theragathas and Theragithas are essentially hundreds of pages of accounts of the personal experiences of the monks. This is often viewed as an inspiration for others.
For monks, the following rules apply:
‘If a monk truthfully tells a person who is not fully ordained of a superhuman quality, he commits an offense entailing confession.’”
‘If a monk falsely claims for himself a superhuman quality, a knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones, saying, “This I know, this I see,” but after some time—whether he is questioned or not, but having committed the offense and seeking purification—should say: “Not knowing I said that I know, not seeing that I see; what I said was empty and false,” then, except if it is due to overestimation, he too is expelled and excluded from the community.’”
And of course if you make these sorts of things public, you’ll never stop having to prove it.
Thank you for asking this question. Monks not talking about those sorts of accomplishments is a bit different from lay meditation students like me not describing our simple little experiences. I have not infrequently heard teachers advise meditators not to share and wondered if there is a reason beyond the risk of getting competitive and making too many comparisons.
Thank you Jhanarato–this makes a lot of sense, especially since there are so many risks around the superhuman qualities and potential for abuse. That is consistent with AN 4.77 that Anapana Michael and paul1 also mentioned. I think that draws a helpful “red line” so to speak, and moving forward, when I discuss my meditative experiences, nimittas, etc., as a lay person sharing with others, I will make sure to stay away from that red line. I generally feel it is really helpful to hear about other people’s meditative experiences because it inspires hope that some of these deeper states are attainable in this life.
Thanks Gillian–it is true that there is a risk of competition. I think the Brahmaviharas are a nice antidote to that, though, especially sympathetic joy (mudita), since we can reflect that perhaps the attainments of others are a result of their prior practice and thus it is good that they are benefitting from their meritorious past actions. For me, an important part of having a spiritual community, kalyana mittas, is that we can inspire each other. Occasionally when I hear a teacher at a retreat say that we should not discuss what our meditation experience is like or how it benefits us, it seems like a lost opportunity.