Meaning of Kammaṭṭhāna

Can anyone explain the meaning of kammaṭṭhāna?

The wikipedia article on this term seems extensive.

“Place of work” or “occupation” in the four or so suttas where it appears. Of course, it has a far more robust presence in the Visuddhimagga where it takes on the meaning of the “meditation object” (if I’m recalling correctly). Interestingly enough, samādhinimitta is rendered similarly back in the suttas. It would be fascinating to explore the relationship - if any - between the two terms.

Thank you. Is the term ‘nimitta’ used in the Suttas only for the object that appears in the mind?

This short encyclopedia entry by Ven. Anālayo nicely covers the different contexts in which nimitta is used in the early discourses:
nimitta.pdf (696.9 KB)


It would depend on what you mean by “object”. Looking through the 10 or so suttas where samadhinimitta appears, the descriptions point to resolving upon a topic or context conducive to samadhi, more so than just a specific object. Toss the term into the search function of suttacentral to see some different examples. One of the more prominent:

And what is striving by protection? Here, a bhikkhu protects an arisen excellent object of concentration: the perception of a skeleton, the perception of a worm-infested corpse, the perception of a livid corpse, the perception of a festering corpse, the perception of a fissured corpse, the perception of a bloated corpse. This is called striving by protection. -AN 4.14

A sensible question to ask is why the “perception of…” is the samadhinimitta and not simply the object itself, i.e. why not just “skeleton”. Some food for thought: in MN 121 you’ll find the compound saññāgata (field of perception), which is used in that sutta to describe what the field does and does not include. The sequence begins describing the perception of the village, and the discernment of emptiness takes the understanding to increasingly subtle levels. Point being, when dealing with perception, perhaps understanding it as a field rather than a single position would allow for an understanding of more about what that perception does or does not contribute to in general. Why? Because at a coarse level especially, there is always other aspects to contend with. So, it begs the question of why these perceptions are excellent samadhinimitta:

Bhikkhus, for direct knowledge of lust, ten things are to be developed. What ten? The perception of impermanence, the perception of non-self, the perception of the repulsiveness of food, the perception of non-delight in the entire world, the perception of a skeleton, the perception of a worm-infested corpse, the perception of a livid corpse, the perception of a festering corpse, the perception of a fissured corpse, and the perception of a bloated corpse. For direct knowledge of lust, these ten things are to be developed. -AN 10.238

Mendicants, when the perception of a skeleton is developed and cultivated it’s very fruitful and beneficial. How so? It’s when a mendicant develops the perception of a skeleton together with the awakening factors of mindfulness, investigation of principles, energy, rapture, tranquility, immersion, and equanimity, which rely on seclusion, fading away, and cessation, and ripen as letting go. That’s how the perception of a skeleton, when developed and cultivated, is very fruitful and beneficial. -SN 46.57

So, it isn’t just the skeleton, it is about developing perception to an extent that it becomes as basis for something more; an understanding that needs to be developed and resolved upon. So, far from being just an object, it is certainly more of a topic/context/theme/subject to be pursued for the purposes of both serenity and insight.

There is also samathanimitta (sign of serenity) and abyagganimitta (sign of nondispersal), both described as nutriments of samadhi to which yonisomanasikāra (proper attention) should be given (SN 46.2). Again, some strong indications that the effort should be towards discerning what aspect of the experience supports the presence of samadhi. And of course, it does not go without saying that virtue, sense restraint, and lifestyle are all described as being pivotal to the development of samadhi, so it seems reasonable to assume that the capability of developing what is described in the above suttas is a direct result of day in and day out effort, and not just what is done while formally sitting. Virtue especially is a source for joy and is protection from a great many distractions that are sure to arise when trying to sit quietly and meditate (see AN 10.1).

All in all, making effort to resolve upon any of these nimitta could certainly be considered a “place of work”, which is at least partially consistent with the meaning found in the wiki article above. Then there are the many things that are to be developed as a reference for mindfulness or just as a perception for more than just samadhi (death and breathing to name a few), all of which could be considered “places of work”. Unfortunately, I am not familiar with the historical usage of the term in the Visuddhimagga, so I am not sure how the term evolved to the contemporary “meditation object”. Perhaps someone with more of an understanding can clarify this.

That seems to be quite compatible with Bhante @Sujato’s translation “foundation of immersion” for samādhinimittaṁ, rather than the “object of concentration” translation you’ve quoted is from Bhikkhu Bodhi.

I’m not sure the following is so surprising if you look further up the same sutta:

There you have the description of sense restraint, which again is to do with the perception, not the object:

And what, mendicants, is the effort to restrain?
Katamañca, bhikkhave, saṁvarappadhānaṁ?
When a mendicant sees a sight with their eyes, they don’t get caught up in the features and details.
Idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu cakkhunā rūpaṁ disvā na nimittaggāhī hoti nānubyañjanaggāhī.


This seems well explained in Ven Analayo’s article , cited above.

Thanks. Long ago I provided links to translations of the passages from Ven Analayo’s article, as it can be annoying to search for the PTS page numbers:

Thank you for your answer. My question originated from the distinction between three kinds of nimitta given in Abhidhammatthasaṅgaha. I have not found such a distinction elsewhere, not even in commentaries. According to the commentaries of Abhidhammatthasaṅgaha , Vibhāvinī-ṭīkā and others, here the object perceived through eyes is also called a nimitta. I just wanted to know if something we see with our eyes can be called nimitta, according to the Suttas. Or the term nimitta is restricted to only what appears in our mind. Like you explained, it seems nimitta has a lot to do with our own perceptions while kammaṭṭhāna may not be so.

Thank you for your answer. If nimitta is strongly related to our own perception, then what we see with our eyes probably cannot be called nimitta. Is it so? It seems nimitta is used in Suttas for what is constructed by our mental perceptions.

My impression is there is no relationship between these two terms.

Kammaṭṭhāna refers to a kind of activity per suttas such as AN 8.76 that refer to ordinary work. However, a similar meditative term in the suttas is ‘kammaniye’, used in MN 4:

So evaṁ samāhite citte parisuddhe pariyodāte anaṅgaṇe vigatūpakkilese mudubhūte kammaniye ṭhite āneñjappatt

When my mind had become immersed in samādhi like this—purified, bright, flawless, rid of corruptions, pliable, workable [ready for work], steady, and imperturbable—I extended it toward…

‘Samādhinimitta’ seems to simply mean ‘a sign for concentration’. The ‘work’ involved in concentration is maintaining mindfulness, right effort, etc. This ‘work’ seems unrelated to the ‘sign’ for/of concentration.

I agree wholeheartedly. The ‘work’ of restraint above is not related to the term ‘nimitta’. :pray:t2:

I agree wholeheartedly, but find it interesting how both are now seemingly used interchangeably.

Thank you very much for your reply.

Thank you for pointing out that ‘kammaniye’ is related to the readiness for the work of meditation (kammaṭṭhāna).

Glad to know the segue into nimitta hasn’t disrupted the topic. I was hesitant to say more.

All I can suggest is looking into some descriptions of nimitta and consider what is most prominent there.

Here, bhikkhus, when a bhikkhu is giving attention to some sign, and owing to that sign there arise in him evil unwholesome thoughts connected with desire, with hate, and with delusion, then he should give attention to some other sign connected with what is wholesome. When he gives attention to some other sign connected with what is wholesome, then any evil unwholesome thoughts connected with desire, with hate, and with delusion are abandoned in him and subside. -MN 20

Recognition of unwholesome seems to be key. If there is no intention to purify the mind of what is unwholesome, there won’t be any inclination to take the mind away from such thinking. So, the key seems to be to discern what is not being “picked up” that may be inducing the unwholesome thinking. According to the above it is “some sign”. First and foremost, if there is a recognition of the thinking being connected with desire, hate or delusion, that seems to be a sufficient basis to stop pursuing that thinking. What indicates that the thinking is unwholesome? It can be any number of things. Presence of anger or lust/greed. Unpleasant feeling. The point is to prevent any further thinking in that direction. Why? Because it is not beneficial. So, instead of welcoming more thinking in the direction of further unwholesome, take the prompt to allow the thinking to go in another direction.

In general, it seems that the sign is not going to be evident if there is no clear criteria for wholesome and unwholesome. It seems the availability of a sign is directly related to an established standard. Of course, this would’ve started long before attempting the above. It began with, 1) the intention to practice the Dhamma and be free from suffering, 2) the intention to develop virtue. With such intentions in place and well-considered (often), there is now a standard in the lifestyle that one is going to be increasingly unwilling to violate. These seem to be the roots of understanding nimitta as described above, and is another reason why the establishment of virtue is so vitally important.

I had a look in the Abhidhammatha Sangaha chapter 9 “Kammatthanasangaha” , # 5 & # 16. (Gocarabheda)

As Ven Analayo points out in his article on Nimitta, these 3 terms describing the progress of concentration are found in the ‘commentarial exegesis’, he cites Visuddhimagga 125.

(this would be Chapter 4, Section 27 in the Nanamoli translation. There is a footnote there glossing “apprehend the sign”: “apprehend with the mind the sign apprehended by the eye in the earth-kasina”
this comes from the maha tika. )

I believe the term ‘access concentration’ is only found in the commentaries as well.

(Tattha hi patibhāganimittam ārabbha upacārasamādhi appanāsamādhi ca pavattanti.)

Interestingly, Ven Analayo writes, “In these contexts, too, [i.e. the progress of concentration described in the commentaries] the nimitta has preserved its causal nuance, since it is the development of such nimittas [i.e. signs] that ‘causes’ the practitioner to reach deeper stages of concentration. “

PS The adjective ‘kammanīya’ ‘workable’ (found in the locative absolute construction cited above) is related to the term ‘kammatthāna’ ‘place of work’ via the basic meaning of ‘kamma’, ‘work’.

Thank you for the reply. In the Visuddhimagga, it is only said that a meditator does parikamma. The term ‘parikamma bhāvanā’ or ‘parikamma nimitta’ are not used. Thank you.

Thank you for the reply. Is it likely that in the text that you quoted from MN20, ‘sign’ pertains to only the mind door and not the other remaining five sense doors?

I understand that here too ‘taking of sign’ (nimittagahaṇa) pertains to recalling the seen visible object in the mind or paying attention to ‘sign’ created in our mind of the seen object rather than paying attention to what is actually seen by our eyes. Is there any different way of understanding it?