Jain Influence in Buddhist Suttas

I watched Ajahn Brahmali’s talk about Right Effort recently, and in it he discusses MN 20. The last method the Buddha gives in that sutta to get rid of unwholesome thoughts is:

Now, suppose that mendicant is focusing on stopping the formation of thoughts, but bad, unskillful thoughts connected with desire, hate, and delusion keep coming up. With teeth clenched and tongue pressed against the roof of the mouth, they should squeeze, squash, and torture mind with mind.

I’m curious what Ajahn @sujato or @Brahmali think about the idea that this shows a Jain influence. Bronkhorst made this claim in his Two Traditions of Meditation in Ancient India where he says:

One more instance of borrowing from main stream meditation was pointed out in § 1.2, above. We saw that at one place in the Majjhima Nikaya ( Vitakkasanthana Sutta, nr 20; MN I.120-21) monks are advised to do what is shown to be incorrect elsewhere (MN I.242; and therefore in the Original Mahasaccaka Sutra). It refers to the kind of meditation which consists of “closing the teeth, pressing his palate with the tongue, restraining thought with the mind, coercing and tormenting it”, in short, main stream meditation.

Honestly, that method has always seemed really out of place to me.

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I checked the Agama version and it is mentioned there as well. Bhikkhu Analayo responds in a footnote to the assertion made by Bronkhorst:

Bronkhorst 1993/2000: xii, id. 1999: 86, and King 1980/1992: 10 consider the instruction given in the present instance to stand in contrast to the inclusion of the same practice in MN 36 at MN I 242,26 among exercises that had not been able to lead the bodhisattva to awakening. Yet, MN 20 is not presenting this exercise as something that on its own results in awakening, but rather as a last resort in case all other attempts to deal with the arising of unwholesome thoughts have failed. Thus, even though to restrain the mind forcefully is not a method that will result in awakening, it does come into its place in order to stop unwholesome thoughts and thereby prevent their spilling over into unwholesome actions.


For the most part the Buddha encourages wise reflection over will power. But as always there are exceptions. Sometimes your mind is so out of control - with rage or whatever - that temporary suppression may be the only option. It’s better to suppress your thoughts than doing something really destructive.

The problem is not that suppression is always wrong, but that we tend use it too readily. For instance, I suspect most people have found themselves in situations where it would be inappropriate to get angry and so they suppress their thoughts. My impression is that it is the default method for most people to control their minds. The Buddha encourages us to use reflection instead, because it is usually far more effective and less energy depleting.

As for Ven. Analayo’s comments, they are quite to the point. Suppression should be regarded as a last resort when all else fails. In fact, this is exactly what MN 20 states.


You’re not alone with that, and it’s interesting to investigate why that is. Mostly, I would say, this is because of two reasons: 1. we have an overly ‘gentlyfied’ view on early Buddhist practice 2. over time the ‘harsher’ ascetic aspects of early Buddhism were toned down.

When we for example investigate tapa (Sanskrit tapas, ascetic heat) in the suttas. tapas is connected to heat, pain, and the ascetic endurance of it. I don’t want to go too much into the details, but suttas that see tapas negatively are mostly in prose and found in AN and MN. While suttas that use tapas in a positive light are less frequent, but in verse and are located in SN and Snp.

There is also a AN / MN text module where bhikkhus practice to endure “cold, heat, hunger, and thirst. They endure the touch of flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, and reptiles. They endure rude and unwelcome criticism. And they put up with physical pain – sharp, severe, acute, unpleasant, disagreeable, and life-threatening” (AN 4.114, AN 4.157, AN 4.165, AN 5.140, AN 6.58, AN 10.71, MN 2, MN 119, MN 125, Snp 1.3). And let’s not forget the simile of the saw in MN 21.

In this context belongs also the extreme determination of the Bodhisattva:

Willingly, let only my skin, sinews, and bones remain, and let the flesh and blood dry up in my body, but I will not relax my energy so long as I have not attained what can be attained by manly strength, energy, and exertion. (AN 2.5, AN 8.13, SN 12.22, SN 21.3, MN 70)

And as a last argument there is the ‘forest vs village monasticism’ debate. I will collect material to this topic in an essay, but let’s say for the moment that forest monasticism was indeed the original Buddhist practice and that this way of life/practice was harsher and required more skills of endurance than village practice.

All this doesn’t diminish that fact that the self-overpowering of MN 20 is that last resort. But if you ask about Jain influence in the suttas, I think we should entertain the possibility that originally Buddhist practice was more in line with harsh Jain / samana endurance and ‘ascetic passion’.


Indeed, but the unique Buddhist flavour to the endurance the OP talks about is that it is deeply rooted in the understanding that unskilful thoughts are to be seriously addressed before they lead to unskilful speech and bodily acts/choices.

One could argue that such approach would not be very much aligned with the Jain standpoint which sees bodily acts towards other creaturea as the main source of problems and much less so what takes place within one’s private mental realm, as per MN56…

“Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta describes the physical rod as being the most blameworthy for performing bad deeds, not so much the verbal rod or the mental rod.”

“Do you say the physical rod, Tapassī?”

“I say the physical rod, Reverend Gotama.”

“Do you say the physical rod, Tapassī?”

“I say the physical rod, Reverend Gotama.”

“Do you say the physical rod, Tapassī?”

“I say the physical rod, Reverend Gotama.”

Thus the Buddha made Dīgha Tapassī stand by this point up to the third time.



My understanding of Jainism is that all action (mental and physical) is the source of suffering. So they strive to stop physical and mental action.

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To talk about ‘Jainism’ is difficult because of the uncertain source texts. So I refer to the EJT, specifically Acaranga Sutra, book 1.

And yes, clearly the text focuses on the physical actions and to abstain from them. However, it doesn’t dismiss the mental, rather it doesn’t mention it much. On the verbal level Mahavira is just silent. Mentally, the focus is on non-reaction regarding emotions, and patient endurance. Beyond that we don’t know much how they dealt with tdifficult houghts/mental states.

In order to be patient and not to react you surely have to do something. But was it structured teaching? We don’t know. Btw. also the Thai forest fathers seemed very implicit about such things, assuming that the practitioners ‘figure it out’ rather than to give them detailed instructions. And we are too far away from the Jain time/mindset to meaningfully interpret what this silence means or implies.

The ‘debates’ in the suttas between Buddhists and Jains are very simplicistic, and sound more like a caricature than a proper exchange of views - which is nothing exceptional as a reference, neither in Buddhist texts nor in other texts of ancient India.


Perhaps drifting off-topic slightly, but I find it interesting that some of the earliest depictions of the Buddha are those from Gandhara (c. 2-5th cents CE) which show him in full-blown ascetic mode.


I’ve always liked those statues of the Buddha.

It’s important here to distinguish between the Buddha-to-be and the Buddha proper. The ascetic statues of the Buddha-to-be reflect the wrong view that results in self-torment.


True, Ajahn. He wasn’t the Buddha yet when depicted that way. And I know it represents him going down a wrong path, but something about it has always resonated with me.

Not sure if you have ever seen but here is a link to a video showing what the buddha-to-be was heading to before he realised it was not the path to awakening:

Sallekhana is very extreme and far from just making an ugly face to let go of unwholesome thoughts… :man_shrugging: :sweat_smile:



There are, of course, different interpretations of these statues.

One view is that, in some cases at least, they represent the Buddha at the end of the 49 day fast that immediately followed his awakening and achievement of Buddhahood.

Link to relevant paper by Kurt Behrendt here, wherein he writes:

Regardless of whether these images represent his pre or post enlightenment fast, they do emphasize his role as the ultimate yogin in the wilderness, and they are powerful ascetic expressions of the Buddha’s path.

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Wow, never heard of that.

Does this hypothesis really make sense? :thinking:


Personally, I’ve found it interesting to read some of the literature devoted to the topic. I’m no specialist though, and I try to keep an open mind.

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Whoa. That’s intense.

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Again, that’s quite undifferentiated. The suttas contain heterogenous material that readers should be aware of. At the end one might conclude for oneself what exactly is condemned, i.e. what kind of self-torment, apparently dhutanga was okay. But that should be done after a careful assessment. Otherwise the simple view is itself a wrong view, no?

Just as an anecdote: In a meditation group I once hosted a participant wouldn’t sit up with the spine erect and leaned at the wall. Her argument was “Why should I torment myself?” And how would the “Yes, but” be justified?..

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Sorry for the question, but what is the issue with leaning on the wall? Is it against any of the factors of the eightfold path? :confused:

That’s not the point. ‘Self-torment’ per se is completely subjective. The suttas clearly don’t mean “You choose what you’d like self-torment to be” (e.g. waiting with dessert until after the main course). As usual the suttas are normative, and it needs a more differentiated position than just “Jainism = self-torment = bad vs. Buddhism = no self-torment = good”

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Thank you, Ajahn! And everyone else!