As shown in part 1 of the essay, nimitta was used rarely in pre-Buddhist texts or the Vedas. Still it’s important to point out that it was not used in a meditation context. As so often with loan words from Vedic the EBT interiorized the application of it (i.e. relocated it inside the mind) and functionalized it in the framework of spiritual progress (i.e. specified the meaning in this direction).
It has been shown from EBT and earlier texts that there was a contemplative ascetic samaṇa movement before the Buddha’s time. And anyone who meditates comes in contact with the phenomenon of nimitta – just if the Buddha coined the term or took it over from other alliterate traditions we can’t really tell.
What is evident though is that nimitta has many different meanings, ranging from the older ‘cause’ to the later ‘sign’. If the occurrences as ‘cause’ represent an older layer as I would not rule out, or the various meanings are well within the normal range as @sujato argues, is open for discussion.
Here at least I provide the sources, so that further discussions can be based on concrete EBT material. It is lengthy but covers basically all appearances of nimitta in EBT. The categories I used are not fix and somewhat fluid, especially when nimittas are used as a tool for meditative development but at the same time signify the successful end result of this development.
##1. Pali Translations of nimitta
The PED suggests mainly the following meanings
- sign, omen, portent, prognostication
- outward appearance, mark, characteristic
- mark, aim
- ground reason, condition
2. Passages with the broad meaning ‘cause’
(a) nimitta as trigger, proximate cause
Here we find the most common application of nimitta in the EBT, i.e. as a mental ‘trigger’, or a ‘proximate cause’ that with a corresponding attention gives rise to a specific mental phenomenon.
The following pericope is spread over all four nikayas and has thus a good potential to be of old age. It is used both alone and in the framework of the gradual training, usually under the title of ‘sense restraint’.
Here, having seen a form with the eye, a bhikkhu does not grasp its nimittas and features. [and accordingly with the other senses]
Idha… bhikkhu cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā na nimittaggāhī hoti nānubyañjanaggāhī.
(DN 2, DN 10, DN 33, MN 27, MN 33, MN 38, MN 39, MN 51, MN 53, MN 94, MN 101, MN 107, MN 112, MN 125, SN 35.120, SN 35.127, SN 35.239, SN 35.240, AN 3.16, AN 4.14, AN 4.37, AN 4.164, AN 4.165, AN 4.198, AN 5.76, AN 5.140, AN 10.99, AN 11.17)
And there are several other passages with the same meaning…
Friend, in the eighty years since I went forth I do not recall ever having grasped at the nimittas and features of a woman
…nābhijānāmi mātugāmassa anubyañjanaso nimittaṃ gahetā (MN 124)
It is through an inversion of perception/ That your mind is engulfed by fire.
Turn away from the nimitta of beauty / Provocative of sensual lust.
Saññāya vipariyesā, cittaṃ te pariḍayhati;
Nimittaṃ parivajjehi, subhaṃ rāgūpasaṃhitaṃ (SN 8.4, Snp 2.11)
Develop animitta / And discard the tendency to conceit.
Then, by breaking through conceit / You will be one who fares at peace.
Animittañca bhāvehi, mānānusayamujjaha;
Tato mānābhisamayā, upasanto carissasī (SN 8.4)
Having seen a form with mindfulness muddled / Attending to the pleasing nimitta,
One experiences it with infatuated mind / And remains tightly holding to it.
Rūpaṃ disvā sati muṭṭhā, piyaṃ nimittaṃ manasi karoto;
Sārattacitto vedeti, tañca ajjhosa tiṭṭhati. (SN 35.95)
It would be better, bhikkhus, for the eye faculty to be lacerated by a red-hot iron pin burning, blazing, and glowing, than for one to grasp the nimitta through the features in a form cognizable by the eye.
Varaṃ, bhikkhave, tattāya ayosalākāya ādittāya sampajjalitāya sajotibhūtāya cakkhundriyaṃ sampalimaṭṭhaṃ, na tveva cakkhuviññeyyesu rūpesu anubyañjanaso nimittaggāho.
For if consciousness should stand tied to gratification in the nimitta or in the features, and if one should die on that occasion, it is possible that one will go to one of two destinations: hell or the animal realm.
Nimittassādagathitaṃ vā, bhikkhave, viññāṇaṃ tiṭṭhamānaṃ tiṭṭheyya, anubyañjanassādagathitaṃ vā tasmiñce samaye kālaṃ kareyya, ṭhānametaṃ vijjati, yaṃ dvinnaṃ gatīnaṃ aññataraṃ gatiṃ gaccheyya – nirayaṃ vā, tiracchānayoniṃ vā. (SN 35.235)
That bhikkhu should then direct his mind towards some inspiring nimitta. When he directs his mind towards some inspiring nimitta, gladness is born.
Tenānanda, bhikkhunā kismiñcideva pasādanīye nimitte cittaṃ paṇidahitabbaṃ. Tassa kismiñcideva pasādanīye nimitte cittaṃ paṇidahato pāmojjaṃ jāyati. (SN 47.10)
A bhikkhu diligently applies himself to a samādhinimitta in the morning, in the middle of the day, and in the evening. Possessing these three factors, a bhikkhu is capable of achieving a wholesome state not yet attained and of increasing a wholesome state already attained. (AN 3.19)
So too, Soṇa, if energy is aroused too forcefully this leads to restlessness, and if energy is too lax this leads to laziness. Therefore, Soṇa, resolve on a balance of energy, achieve evenness of the spiritual faculties, and take up the nimitta there.
Tasmātiha tvaṃ, soṇa, vīriyasamathaṃ adhiṭṭhahaṃ, indriyānañca samataṃ paṭivijjha, tattha ca nimittaṃ gaṇhāhī (AN 6.55)
Bhikkhus, bad unwholesome qualities arise with a nimitta, not without a nimitta. With the abandoning of this nimitta, these bad unwholesome qualities do not occur.
Sanimittā, bhikkhave, uppajjanti pāpakā akusalā dhammā, no animittā. Tasseva nimittassa pahānā evaṃ te pāpakā akusalā dhammā na hontī. (AN 2.77)
…no I-making, mine-making, and underlying tendency to conceit in regard to all nimittas
…bahiddhā ca sabbanimittesu ahaṅkāramamaṅkāramānānusayā na bhavissanti/nāssu (AN 3.32/AN 3.33)
Lady, what is samādhi? (Unification of mind)
What is the samādhinimittā? (the four foundations of mindfulness)
What is the equipment of concentration (samādhiparikkhārā)? (the four right kinds of striving)
What is the development of concentration (samādhibhāvanā)? (the repetition, development, and cultivation of these same states). (MN 44)
Bhikkhus, when a bhikkhu is pursuing the higher mind (adhicitta), from time to time he should give attention to five nimittas. What are the five? “Here, bhikkhus, when a bhikkhu is giving attention to some nimitta, and owing to that nimitta there arise in him evil unwholesome thoughts connected with desire, with hate, and with delusion, then he should give attention to some other nimitta connected with what is wholesome. (MN 20, AN 6.27, AN 6.28)
How, friends, is consciousness called ‘distracted and scattered externally’? Here, when a bhikkhu has seen a form with the eye, if his consciousness follows after the nimitta of form, is tied and shackled by gratification in the nimitta of form… [and accordingly with the other senses]
Idhāvuso, bhikkhuno cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā na rūpanimittānusāri viññāṇaṃ hoti rūpanimittassādagadhitaṃ na rūpanimittassādavinibandhaṃ na rūpanimittassādasaṃyojanasaṃyuttaṃ bahiddhā viññāṇaṃ avikkhittaṃ avisaṭanti vuccati. (MN 138)
Lust is a maker of nimittas, hate is a maker of nimittas, delusion is a maker of nimittas.
Rāgo kho, āvuso, nimittakaraṇo, doso nimittakaraṇo, moho nimittakaraṇo. (MN 43, SN 41.7)
Avoid a nimitta which Is pleasant, connected with passion / develop a mind intent and well-concentrated on the unpleasant (asubhāya cittaṃ bhāvehi)
and develop animitta, cast out the latent latency to conceit (mānānusayamujjaha) / then by the full understanding of conceit you will wander, stilled. (Snp 2.11)
(b) subhanimitta and asubhanimitta
A frequent aspect of the more general nimitta as trigger is the more specific subhanimitta, a percept that tempts to react with lust.
When a person with no blemish does not understand it as it actually is thus: ‘I have no blemish in myself,’ it can be expected that he will give attention to the nimitta of the beautiful, that by his doing so lust will infect his mind…
subhanimittaṃ manasi karissati, tassa subhanimittassa manasikārā rāgo cittaṃ anuddhaṃsessati (MN 5)
I do not see even one other thing on account of which unarisen sensual desire arises and arisen sensual desire increases and expands so much as the nimitta of the attractive.
Nāhaṃ, bhikkhave, aññaṃ ekadhammampi samanupassāmi yena anuppanno vā kāmacchando uppajjati uppanno vā kāmacchando bhiyyobhāvāya vepullāya saṃvattati yathayidaṃ, bhikkhave, subhanimittaṃ (AN 1.11, similarly AN 3.68)
Bhikkhus, I do not see even one other thing on account of which unarisen ill will arises and arisen ill will increases and expands so much as the nimitta of the repulsive (paṭighanimitta). For one who attends carelessly to the nimitta of the repulsive, unarisen ill will arises and arisen ill will increases and expands. (AN 1.12)
Bhikkhus, there are these two conditions for the arising of hatred. What two? The nimitta of the repulsive and careless attention. (AN 2.124)
I do not see even one other thing on account of which unarisen sensual desire does not arise and arisen sensual desire is abandoned so much as the nimitta of the unattractive (asubhanimitta) (AN 1.16)
The nimitta of the attractive and careless attention. These are the two conditions for the arising of greed.
Subhanimittañca ayoniso ca manasikāro. Ime kho, bhikkhave, dve paccayā rāgassa uppādāyā. (AN 2.123)
For one devoted to practicing meditation on the mark of unattractiveness asubhanimitta, revulsion toward the mark of the beautiful subhanimitta becomes established.
Asubhanimittānuyogaṃ anuyuttassa kho, nāgita, subhanimitte pāṭikulyatā saṇṭhāti (AN 5.30)
Pursuit of an attractive nimitta is a thorn to one intent on meditation on the nimitta of the unattractive.
asubhanimittānuyogaṃ anuyuttassa subhanimittānuyogo kaṇṭako (AN 10.72)
(c ) nimitta as nutriment
Another more specific application for nimitta as a causal factor is as nutriment.
And what, bhikkhus, is the nutriment for the arising of the unarisen enlightenment factor of concentration and for the fulfilment by development of the arisen enlightenment factor of concentration? There are, bhikkhus, the nimitta of serenity (samathanimitta), the nimitta of nondispersal (abyagganimitta)… What, bhikkhus, is the nutriment for the arising of unarisen ill will and for the increase and expansion of arisen ill will? There is, bhikkhus, the sign of the repulsive (paṭighanimitta). (SN 46.2, SN 46.51)
And what, bhikkhus, is the nutriment for the arising of unarisen sensual desire and for the increase and expansion of arisen sensual desire? There is, bhikkhus, the nimitta of the beautiful.
Ko ca, bhikkhave, āhāro anuppannassa vā kāmacchandassa uppādāya, uppannassa vā kāmacchandassa bhiyyobhāvāya vepullāya? Atthi, bhikkhave, subhanimittaṃ (SN 46.2, SN 46.51 Furthermore asubhanimitta is described in SN 46.51 as the de-nourishment of sensual desire)
(d) nimitta as reason
In a few cases nimitta has a stronger meaning as reason
I see no nimitta on which any recluse or brahmin or god or Māra or Brahmā or anyone else at all in the world could, in accordance with the Dhamma, accuse me thus: ‘While you claim to be fully enlightened, you are not fully enlightened about these things.’ And seeing no nimitta for that, I abide in safety, fearlessness, and intrepidity.
‘Sammāsambuddhassa te paṭijānato ime dhammā anabhisambuddhā’ti. Tatra vata maṃ samaṇo vā brāhmaṇo vā devo vā māro vā brahmā vā koci vā lokasmiṃ sahadhammena paṭicodessatīti nimittametaṃ, sāriputta, na samanupassāmi. Etamahaṃ, sāriputta, nimittaṃ asamanupassanto khemappatto abhayappatto vesārajjappatto viharāmi. (MN 12, AN 4.8, AN 7.58)
Venerable sir, as we abide here diligent, ardent, and resolute, we perceive both light and a vision of forms. Soon afterwards the light and the vision of forms disappear, but we have not discovered [lit. penetrated] the nimitta for that.” “You should discover [lit. penetrate] the nimitta for that, Anuruddha.
So kho pana no obhāso nacirasseva antaradhāyati dassanañca rūpānaṃ; tañca nimittaṃ nappaṭivijjhāmā’’ti. ‘‘Taṃ kho pana vo, anuruddhā, nimittaṃ paṭivijjhitabbaṃ. (MN 128)
That has a nimitta, a source (nidāna), a causal formation (saṅkhāra), a condition (paccaya). It is impossible for that … faculty to arise without a nimitta, without a source, without a causal formation, without a condition.
uppannaṃ kho me idaṃ …indriyaṃ, tañca kho sanimittaṃ sanidānaṃ sasaṅkhāraṃ sappaccayaṃ. Tañca animittaṃ anidānaṃ asaṅkhāraṃ appaccayaṃ …indriyaṃ uppajjissatīti – netaṃ ṭhānaṃ vijjati. (SN 48.40)
Bhikkhus, bad unwholesome qualities arise with a nimitta, not without a nimitta. With the abandoning of this nimitta, these bad unwholesome qualities do not occur.
Sanimittā, bhikkhave, uppajjanti pāpakā akusalā dhammā, no animittā. Tasseva nimittassa pahānā evaṃ te pāpakā akusalā dhammā na hontī. (AN 2.77)
3. Passages with the meaning ‘sign’ or ‘characteristic’
The other large chunk of meaning of nimitta is as ‘sign’, ‘mark’ and ‘characteristic’ - which has become the default translation, and the default understanding of the word.
(a) nimitta as characteristic
when he often dwells with a mind accustomed to the perception of non-self in what is suffering, his mind is devoid of I-making, mine-making, and conceit regarding this conscious body and all nimittas, and … it has transcended discrimination and become peaceful and well liberated…
Sace, bhikkhave, bhikkhuno dukkhe anattasaññāparicitena cetasā bahulaṃ viharato imasmiñca saviññāṇake kāye bahiddhā ca sabbanimittesu na ahaṅkāramamaṅkāramānāpagataṃ mānasaṃ hoti vidhāsamatikkantaṃ santaṃ suvimuttaṃ. (AN 7.49, similarly MN 109, MN 112, SN 18.21, SN 18.22, SN 22.71, SN 22.72, SN 22.82, SN 22.91, SN 22.92, SN 22.124, SN.125)
Just as when a woman or a man, young, youthful, fond of ornaments, on viewing the image of her own face (mukhanimitta) in a clear bright mirror or in a basin of clear water, sees a smudge or a blemish on it, she makes an effort to remove it. (MN 15, AN 10.51, AN 10.52, AN 10.53, AN 10.54. AN 10.55, similarly DN 2, DN 10, MN 77, SN 22.83)
Householder, you have the aspects (ākārā), marks (liṅgā), and nimittas of a householder.
Te hi te, gahapati, ākārā, te liṅgā, te nimittā yathā taṃ gahapatissā. (MN 54)
Bhikkhus, there are these three characteristics (lakkhaṇāni) of a fool, signs of a fool (nimittāni), attributes (padānāni) of a fool. (MN 129, AN 3.3)
While she was doing so, she recognised the characteristic nimittas of his hands, his feet, and his voice.
Atha kho āyasmato raṭṭhapālassa ñātidāsī taṃ ābhidosikaṃ kummāsaṃ āyasmato raṭṭhapālassa patte ākirantī hatthānañca pādānañca sarassa ca nimittaṃ aggahesi. (MN 82)
At night a bhikkhu develops the basis for spiritual power that possesses concentration due to desire and volitional formations of striving by way of the same qualities (ākārehi), the same features (liṅgehi), the same nimittas, as he develops that basis for spiritual power by day.
Idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu yehi ākārehi yehi liṅgehi yehi nimittehi divā chandasamādhippadhānasaṅkhārasamannāgataṃ iddhipādaṃ bhāveti, so tehi ākārehi tehi liṅgehi tehi nimittehi rattiṃ chandasamādhippadhānasaṅkhārasamannāgataṃ iddhipādaṃ bhāveti. (SN 51.20)
Suppose, brahmin, there is a bowl of water … If a man with good sight were to examine his own facial reflection (mukhanimitta) in it… (SN 46.55, AN 5.193)
(b) animitta samādhi
A specific connotation of nimitta as sign or mark is a specific samādhi mentioned in the EBT, the animitta samādhi. It represents a very deep state beyond the jhānas, probably meant as without any mental activity.
A bhikkhu - not attending to the perception of the base of nothingness, not attending to the perception of the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception - attends to the animitta dependent on the animitta concentration of mind… He understand thus: ‘Whatever disturbances there might be dependent on the perception of the base of nothingness, those are not present here; whatever disturbances there might be dependent on the perception of the base of neither-perceptionnor-non-perception, those are not present here. There is present only this amount of disturbance, namely, that connected with the six bases that are dependent on this body and conditioned by life (kāyaṃ paṭicca saḷāyatanikaṃ jīvitapaccayā).’ (MN 121)
I do not see even a single kind of form, Ānanda, from the change and alteration of which there would not arise sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair in one who lusts for it and takes delight in it. However, Ānanda, there is this abiding discovered by the Tathāgata: to enter and abide in voidness internally by giving no attention to all nimittas.
Ayaṃ kho panānanda, vihāro tathāgatena abhisambuddho yadidaṃ – sabbanimittānaṃ amanasikārā ajjhattaṃ suññataṃ upasampajja viharituṃ. (MN 122)
For direct knowledge of lust, three things are to be developed. What three? Emptiness concentration (suññato samādhi), animitta concentration (animitto samādhi), and wishless concentration (appaṇihito samādhi) (AN 3.183, similarly SN 43.4, SN 43.12, DN 33)
When a bhikkhu has emerged from the attainment of the cessation of perception and feeling, three kinds of contact touch him: emptiness-contact (suññato phasso), animitta-contact (animitto phasso), undirected-contact (appaṇihito phasso). (SN 41.6)
When a bhikkhu has emerged from the attainment of the cessation of perception and feeling, three kinds of contact touch him: voidness contact, animitta contact, desireless contact. (MN 44)
I have developed and cultivated the animitta liberation of the mind (animittācetovimutti), made it my vehicle and basis, carried it out, consolidated it, and properly undertaken it, yet my consciousness still follows after nimittas. … Do not misrepresent the Blessed One … For this, friend, is the escape from all nimittas, namely, the animitta liberation of the mind. (AN 6.13)
Then [after the 4th jhāna], friends, through non-attention to all nimittas, some person enters and dwells in the animitta mental concentration.
ekacco puggalo sabbanimittānaṃ amanasikārā animittaṃ cetosamādhiṃ upasampajja viharati. (AN 6.60, similarly AN 7.56)
Whenever, Ānanda, by nonattention to all nimittas and by the cessation of certain feelings, the Tathāgata enters and dwells in the animitta concentration of mind, on that occasion, Ānanda, the body of the Tathāgata is more comfortable. (SN47.9, similarly DN 16)
There are two conditions (paccayā) for the attainment of the animitta deliverance of mind (animittāya cetovimuttiyā samāpattiyā): non-attention to all nimittas (sabbanimittānañca amanasikāro) and attention to the animitta element (animittāya dhātuyā manasikāro, term unique to this sutta). (MN 43)
In whom the influxes are fully extinct / Who is not attached to sustenance / And whose pasture is freedom
That is empty and animitta / His track is hard to trace / As of birds in the sky. (Dhp 7)
(c ) nimitta as a visual clue
In the following example the nimitta is taken explicitly as a visual clue, whereas impressions from the other senses don’t get the nimitta-label. How far reaching this understanding is, and how much we have to assume that also in other contexts a visual nimitta is meant is uncertain. In any case we don’t have enough grounds to decide the question satisfactorily, but it might still be a fruitful discussion.
Also unsurpassed is the Blessed Lord’s way of teaching Dhamma in regard to the telling of thoughts in four ways. Thus, one tells by a visible nimitta, saying: “This is what you think, this is in your mind, your thought is like this.”
Idha, bhante, ekacco nimittena ādisati – ‘evampi te mano, itthampi te mano, itipi te citta’.
Or, one tells not by a visible nimitta, but through hearing a sound (saddaṃ sutvā) made by humans, non-humans, or devas.
Puna caparaṃ, bhante, idhekacco na heva kho nimittena ādisati. Api ca kho manussānaṃ vā amanussānaṃ vā devatānaṃ vā saddaṃ sutvā ādisati. (DN 28, AN 3.60)
And where, friends, is this Great Brahmā now?” “Monk, we do not know when, how and where Brahmā will appear. But when the nimittas are seen — when a light appears and a radiance shines forth — then Brahmā will appear.
Kahaṃ panāvuso, etarahi so mahābrahmā’ti? ‘Mayampi kho, bhikkhu, na jānāma, yattha vā brahmā yena vā brahmā yahiṃ vā brahmā; api ca, bhikkhu, yathā nimittā dissanti, āloko sañjāyati, obhāso pātubhavati, brahmā pātubhavissati. (DN 11, DN 18, DN 19)
When they see these nimittas, Brahmā will soon appear: This is Brahmā nimitta, radiance vast and great.
Yathā nimittā dissanti, brahmā pātubhavissati; Brahmuno hetaṃ nimittaṃ, obhāso vipulo mahā. (DN 18, DN 19)
By whatever properties (ākāra), features (liṅga), nimittas or indications (uddesa) the mind-factor (nāmakāya) is conceived of, would there, in the absence of such properties… pertaining to the mind-factor, be manifest any grasping at the idea of the body-factor (rūpakāya)?׳ ‘No, Lord.’
Yehi, ānanda, ākārehi yehi liṅgehi yehi nimittehi yehi uddesehi nāmakāyassa paññatti hoti, tesu ākāresu tesu liṅgesu tesu nimittesu tesu uddesesu asati api nu kho rūpakāye adhivacanasamphasso paññāyethā? (DN 15)
(d) pubbanimitta - nimitta as fore-sign
In a few suttas the specific pubbanimitta is a fore-sign or precursor, with pubba literally meaning ‘first’, ‘fore’, etc.
Bhikkhus, just as the dawn is the forerunner (pubbaṅgama) and pubbanimitta of the sunrise, so right view is the forerunner and pubbanimitta of wholesome qualities.
Sūriyassa, bhikkhave, udayato etaṃ pubbaṅgamaṃ etaṃ pubbanimittaṃ, yadidaṃ – aruṇuggaṃ. Evamevaṃ kho, bhikkhave, kusalānaṃ dhammānaṃ etaṃ pubbaṅgamaṃ etaṃ pubbanimittaṃ, yadidaṃ – sammādiṭṭhi. (AN 10.121)
- SN 45.49, SN 45.56 good friendship being the pubbanimitta of the Noble Eightfold Path
- SN 45.50-55, SN 45.57-62 several accomplishments bein the pubbanimitta of the Noble Eightfold Path
- SN 46.12, SN 46.48 good friendship being the pubbanimitta of the bojjhaṅgas
- SN 46.13 careful attention (yonisomanasikāra) being the pubbanimitta of the bojjhaṅgas
- SN 56.37 right view being the pubbanimitta of the Noble Eightfold Path
The appearance of Brahma and the connected nimittas of light and radiance was already mentioned and quoted above. It is no coincidence that in these suttas DN 11, DN 18, and DN 19 also pubbanimitta is applied to the appearance of Brahma - which is mostly used for the appearance of the sun-dawn:
For that is the pubbanimitta of the manifestation (pātubhāvāya) of Brahmā when the light ariseth, and the glory shineth. (DN 11)
The appearance of such radiance is the pubbanimitta of Brahmā’s approaching manifestation. (DN 18, DN 19)
(e) DN 30 Lakkhaṇa Sutta
In DN 30 nimitta is used as a synonym to lakkhaṇa, i.e. as a mark or sign. All occurrences are in verse. It is an unusual sutta, and unusual con-texts around nimitta nimitta as well…
Those who read the nimittas and signs (lakkhaṇa) / Experts in such lore declare…
Bahuvividhanimittalakkhaṇaññū, Atinipuṇā manujā byākariṃsu…
And they who knew what signs should mean / Declared: This one will lead the folk.
Byākaṃsu byañjananimittadharā, Pubbaṅgamo bahujanaṃ hessati. (DN 30)
Through past good kamma well stored up, With such birth-marks spared all loss.
Pubbe suciṇṇena katena kammunā, Ahāniyaṃ pubbanimittamassa taṃ. (DN 30)
Practising the noble powers: So the three marks indicate.
Yāpayati ca vasiddhibhāvanāya, Iti dīghāyukatāya taṃ nimitta. (DN 30)
Those who know such things declare (Interpreting the nimittas with skill),
“A child with such fine eyes will be One who’s looked upon with joy."
Abhiyogino ca nipuṇā, Bahū pana nimittakovidā
Sukhumanayanakusalā manujā, Piyadassanoti abhiniddisanti naṃ. (DN 30)
4. nimitta as result / meditation achievement
Influenced by the Visuddhimagga there is a tradition that takes certain nimitta (e.g. an intense light) as a proof for jhāna, i.e. as a result. Even if this is by far not the most frequent meaning in the EBT, there are still a good number of cases where such an understanding is fully justified.
By nonattention to all nimittas [as trigger], a bhikkhu enters and dwells in animitta samādhi of mind [as a resulting state without characteristics]. (SN 40.9)
The measureless liberation of mind, the liberation of mind by nothingness, the liberation of mind by emptiness, and the animitta liberation of mind: are these things different in meaning and also different in phrasing, or are they one in meaning and different only in phrasing?
[measureless liberation of mind = brahmaviharas / liberation of mind by nothingness = the base of nothingness / liberation of mind by emptiness = ‘Empty is this of self or of what belongs to self’ / animitta liberation of mind = nonattention to all nimittas]. (SN 41.7)
It is impossible that one who does not find delight in solitude when he is alone will acquire the nimitta of the mind. It is impossible that one who does not acquire the nimitta of the mind will fulfill right view.
Eko paviveke anabhiramanto cittassa nimittaṃ gahessatī’ti netaṃ ṭhānaṃ vijjati. Cittassa nimittaṃ agaṇhanto sammādiṭṭhiṃ paripūressatī’ti netaṃ ṭhānaṃ vijjati (AN 6.68)
Among qualities suitable and unsuitable, inferior and superior, dark and bright along with their counterparts, he has grasped the mark well, attended to it well, reflected upon it well, and penetrated it well with wisdom
sappāyāsappāyesu kho panassa dhammesu hīnappaṇītesu kaṇhasukkasappatibhāgesu nimittaṃ suggahitaṃ hoti sumanasikataṃ sūpadhāritaṃ suppaṭividdhaṃ paññāya (AN 7.38, AN 7.39)
That foolish, incompetent, unskilful cook does not pick up the minitta of his own master’s preference: ‘Today this curry pleased my master, or he reached for this one, or he took a lot of this one, or he spoke in praise of this one.
Sa kho so, bhikkhave, bālo abyatto akusalo sūdo sakassa bhattu nimittaṃ na uggaṇhāti.
…So too, bhikkhus, here some foolish, incompetent, unskilful bhikkhu dwells contemplating the body in the body… While he dwells contemplating the body in the body, his mind does not become concentrated, his corruptions are not abandoned… Because, bhikkhus, that foolish, incompetent, unskilful bhikkhu does not pick up the nimitta of his own mind.
Tathā hi so, bhikkhave, bālo abyatto akusalo bhikkhu sakassa cittassa nimittaṃ na uggaṇhāti. (SN 47.8)
Some bhikkhu here is foolish, incompetent, inexperienced, and unskilled, when, secluded from sensual pleasures… he enters and dwells in the first jhāna… He does not pursue that nimitta, does not develop and cultivate it, does not focus on it well…
so taṃ nimittaṃ na āsevati na bhāveti na bahulīkaroti na svādhiṭṭhitaṃ adhiṭṭhāti. (AN 9.35)
Bhikkhus, when a bhikkhu is devoted to the higher mind (adhicitta), from time to time he should give attention to three nimittas. …the nimitta of concentration (samādhinimitta), …the nimitta of exertion (paggahanimittaṃ), and …the nimitta of equanimity (upekkhānimitta)…
If a bhikkhu devoted to the higher mind attends exclusively to the mark of concentration, it is possible that his mind will veer toward laziness. If he attends exclusively to the mark of exertion, it is possible that his mind will veer toward restlessness. If he attends exclusively to the mark of equanimity, it is possible that his mind will not be properly concentrated for the destruction of the taints. (AN 3.102)
When the talk is finished, Aggivessana, then I steady my mind internally, quieten it, bring it to singleness, and concentrate it on that same samādhi nimitta as before, in which I constantly abide.
So kho ahaṃ, aggivessana, tassāyeva kathāya pariyosāne, tasmiṃyeva purimasmiṃ samādhinimitte ajjhattameva cittaṃ saṇṭhapemi sannisādemi ekodiṃ karomi samādahāmi, yena sudaṃ niccakappaṃ viharāmī. (MN 36, similarly MN 122)
What is the effort of preservation? Here, a monk keeps firmly in his mind a favourable nimitta of concentration which has arisen, such as a skeleton, or a corpse that is full of worms, blue-black, full of holes, bloated.
Katamañcāvuso, anurakkhaṇāpadhānaṃ? Idhāvuso, bhikkhu uppannaṃ bhadrakaṃ samādhinimittaṃ anurakkha. (DN 33, similarly AN 4.14)
Again, neither the Teacher nor a fellow monk in the position of a teacher teaches the Dhamma to a bhikkhu, nor… but he has grasped well a certain samādhinimitta, attended to it well, sustained it well, and penetrated it well with wisdom.
… api ca khvassa aññataraṃ samādhinimittaṃ suggahitaṃ hoti sumanasikataṃ sūpadhāritaṃ suppaṭividdhaṃ paññāya. (AN 5.26)
In the evening, when an esteemed bhikkhu has emerged from seclusion and is sitting in the shade of his dwelling with his legs crossed, holding his body straight, having established mindfulness before him, the samādhinimitta that he attended to during the day is still present to him. (AN 6.28)
There are, bhikkhus, these three kinds of unwholesome thoughts: sensual thought, (kāmavitakko), thought of ill will (byāpādavitakko), thought of harming (vihiṃsāvitakko). And where, bhikkhus, do these three unwholesome thoughts cease without remainder? For one who dwells with a mind well established in the four establishments of mindfulness (catūsu vā satipaṭṭhānesu suppatiṭṭhitacittassa viharato), or for one who develops animitta samādhi. This is reason enough, bhikkhus, to develop animitta samādhi. (SN 22.80)
On the occasion when I do not attend to the sign of forms but attend to the sign of light, I then perceive light but do not see forms. On the occasion when I do not attend to the nimitta of light (obhāsanimitta) but attend to the nimitta of forms (rūpanimitta), I then see forms but do not perceive light, even for a whole night or a whole day or a whole day and night. (MN 128)
Just as one person might look upon another - as one standing might look upon one sitting down, or one sitting down might look upon one lying down - so too, a bhikkhu has grasped well the reviewing-nimitta (paccavekkhaṇanimitta), attended to it well, sustained it well, and penetrated it well with wisdom. (AN 5.28)
Three more kinds of concentration: concentration on emptiness (suññato samādhi), animitto samādhi, desireless concentration (appanihito samādhi). (DN 33)
The nimitta of calm and nimitta of exertion. samathanimittañca paggahanimittañca. (DN 33)
Six elements making for deliverance (nissaraṇīyā-dhātuyo) [1.mettā 2.karunā 3.muditā 4.upekkhā 5.animitta 6. The idea ‘I am’ is repellent to me, I pay no heed to the idea: ‘I am this.’] (DN 33, DN 34)
…when he has properly grasped some samādhi nimitta, has well considered it, applied his mind to it, and has well penetrated it with wisdom. At this, joy arises in him, and from this joy, delight. (DN 33, DN 34)
Which five things are to be developed? Fivefold perfect concentration (sammāsamādhi): suffusion with delight (pīti), suffusion with happiness (sukha), suffusion with will (ceto), suffusion with light (āloka), the reviewing-nimitta (paccavekkhaṇanimitta). (DN 34)
5. Passages with slightly different or uncertain meanings
Even with the shown variety of meanings, there are still more which appear rarely but still add to the cloud of connotations of nimitta
(a) nimitta as hint
In a few cases nimitta takes the position of ‘almost active’. Then it serves as a hint. This meaning became somewhat famous due to poor Ananda failing to ask the Buddha to extend his lifetime.
But the Venerable Ananda, failing to grasp this broad hint, this clear sign (oḷārika nimitta), did not beg the Lord: ‘Lord, may the Blessed Lord stay for a century, may the Well-Farer stay for a century for the benefit and happiness of the multitude, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit and happiness of devas and humans’, so much was his mind possessed by Māra.
Evampi kho āyasmā ānando bhagavatā oḷārike nimitte kayiramāne oḷārike obhāse kayiramāne nāsakkhi paṭivijjhituṃ… (DN 16, SN 51.10, AN 8.70)
Again, in the future there will be bhikkhus who bond closely with monastery workers and novices. When they form such close bonds, it can be expected that they will engage in the use of various kinds of stored-up goods and give gross hints (oḷārikampi nimittaṃ) in regard to the ground and vegetation.
anekavihitaṃ sannidhikāraparibhogaṃ anuyuttā viharissanti, oḷārikampi nimittaṃ karissanti, pathaviyāpi haritaggepi (AN 5.80)
(b) nemitta as omen / nemittiko as fortune-teller or ‘hinter’
In Sanskrit this one of the lexical meanings of nimitta is ‘omen’. Even though it appears rarely in this meaning in the EBT and only in the variation as nemitta, it shows us an interesting aspect of livelihood. In DN 14 we have the nemittika, a brahmin who is specialized in fortune-telling (Skt. naimitta, naimittaka). In the context of bhikkhus it is used in this but also in a more vague meaning. Here the ‘hinter’ is a monk with wrong behavior.
Whereas some ascetics and Brahmins… make their living by … palmistry, divining by nimittas, portents…
…micchājīvena jīvitaṃ kappenti, seyyathidaṃ – aṅgaṃ nimittaṃ uppātaṃ… (DN 1, DN 2)
The king looked at the prince and then said to the Brahmins skilled in signs: “You gentlemen are skilled in nimittas, examine the prince.”
Addasā kho, bhikkhave, bandhumā rājā vipassiṃ kumāraṃ, disvā nemitte brāhmaṇe āmantāpetvā etadavoca – ‘passantu bhonto nemittā brāhmaṇā kumāra’nti. (DN 14, and several more times in the same meaning in this sutta)
Bhikkhus, there are these five obstacles to rain that the forecasters (nemittā) do not know about, where their eyes do not tread.
Pañcime, bhikkhave, vassassa antarāyā, yaṃ nemittā na jānanti, yattha nemittānaṃ cakkhu na kamati. (AN 5.197)
Whereas some ascetics and Brahmins remain addicted to deception, patter, hinting (nemittikā), belittling, and are always on the make for further gains, the ascetic Gotama refrains from such deception.
Yathā vā paneke bhonto samaṇabrāhmaṇā saddhādeyyāni bhojanāni bhuñjitvā te kuhakā ca honti, lapakā ca nemittikā ca nippesikā ca, lābhena lābhaṃ nijigīṃsitāro ca evarūpā kuhanalapanā paṭivirato samaṇo gotamo. (DN 1, DN 2)
One should be truthful and faithful, not using deception, patter, hinting (nemittiko) or belittling, not always on the make for further gains…
Idha, bhante, ekacco sacco cassa saddho ca, na ca kuhako, na ca lapako, na ca nemittiko, na ca nippesiko, na ca lābhena lābhaṃ nijigīsanako…. (DN 28)
Possessing five qualities, an elder bhikkhu is displeasing and disagreeable to his fellow monks … What five? He is a schemer, a flatterer, a hinter (nemittiko), a belittler, and one who pursues gain with gain
Kuhako ca hoti, lapako ca, nemittiko… (AN 5.83)
And what, bhikkhus, is wrong livelihood? Scheming, talking, hinting (nemittikatā), belittling, pursuing gain with gain.
Katamo ca, bhikkhave, micchāājīvo? Kuhanā, lapanā, nemittikatā, nippesikatā, lābhena lābhaṃ nijigīsanatā. (MN 117)
(c ) Unclear meanings
With these last few references of nimitta I at least had difficulties to squeeze any real meaning out of…
Here, bhikkhu, a bhikkhu has heard, ‘Nothing is worth adhering to.’ When a bhikkhu has heard, ‘Nothing is worth adhering to,’ he directly knows everything. Having directly known everything, he fully understands everything. Having fully understood everything, he sees all nimittas differently. He sees the eye differently… When, bhikkhu, a bhikkhu knows and sees thus, ignorance is abandoned by him and true knowledge arises.”
So sabbaṃ dhammaṃ abhijānāti, sabbaṃ dhammaṃ abhiññāya sabbaṃ dhammaṃ parijānāti, sabbaṃ dhammaṃ pariññāya sabbanimittāni aññato passati, cakkhuṃ aññato passati, rūpe… (SN 35.80)
And how, householder, does one roam about in an abode? By diffusion and confinement in the abode [consisting in] the nimitta of forms (rūpanimitta), one is called one who roams about in an abode. By diffusion and confinement in the abode [consisting in] the nimitta of sounds (saddanimitta) … (SN 22.3)
The life of mortals here is with no nimitta unknown (animittamanaññātaṃ). Difficult and brief, and is combined with misery. (Snp 3.8)