Nimitta - a source collection

See: https://dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=23&t=5909

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This is a cool thread. Thanks!

It seems to me samadhinimitta does not mean ‘sign/object of samadhi’, but ‘cause of samadhi’ (or ‘basis’, ‘trigger’, etc. I think ‘basis’ works best overall, so I’ll use that just to illustrate my thoughts.)

The idea ‘object of samadhi’ seems to largely come from the understanding of samadhi as ‘concentration’, but I don’t agree with that. If you see it as ‘unification’, ‘going to one’ of the mind, then an object of samadhi makes way less sense. The point of samadhi to me is that the duality between object and observer disappears.

The meaning of ‘object’ for nimitta is a bit farfetched already, I think. And as an object of samadhi even more. I don’t think the suttas ever talk about putting samadhi on something. I mean, do they ever tell us to put samadhi on the breath or on the idea of impermanence or something? Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think so. The only possible exception I know is this samadhinimitta. That alone makes me doubt it means ‘object’.

I’ve looked at all the occurrences of samadhinimitta I think you’ve mentioned:

  • MN44 has cattāro satipaṭṭhānā samādhinimittā, where it certainly means ‘basis for samadhi’, since the sutta says development of satipaṭṭhāna leads to samadhi.

You agree on this, but other occurrences of samādhinimitta you’ve put under “result”. I think most if not all can be read as ‘cause/basis’ too, although some with a bit less certainty than others:

  • In AN5.26 the samadhinimitta occurs way before the samadhi itself in the practice of the monk, so it can not be an object of samadhi. It seems this sutta is saying, if you can’t get inspiration by any of the mentioned ways, then take another basis for samadhi to get inspiration to then get into samadhi.

  • AN3.102: “Bhikkhus, when a bhikkhu is devoted to the higher mind (this means jhanas, so again there’s no samadhi yet), from time to time he should give attention to three bases. …a basis for samadhi … a basis for exertion … a basis for equanimity. If a bhikkhu devoted to the higher mind attends exclusively to a basis for samadhi, it is possible that his mind will veer toward laziness. …” If you’re lazy there won’t be samadhi, so no ‘sign’ or ‘object’ of it either. But you can attend to a cause / basis, like letting go.

  • AN4.14: “What is the effort of preservation? Here, a monk keeps firmly in his mind a favourable basis for concentration which has arisen, such as [a perception of] a skeleton…” Right effort comes before samadhi too. And if one’s perception is that of a skeleton and such, then one seems to still be developing samadhi by abandoning sensual desire. Plus an object of meditation wouldn’t be the perception of a skeleton, but just the skeleton itself. (Walsh probably omitted ‘perception’ in DN for this very reason.)

  • AN3.19: “A bhikkhu diligently applies himself to a basis for samadhi 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.” It seems more likely that this occurs before attaining samadhi than after. The arising and increasing of wholesome states is commonly a part of right effort as well. It’s not clear what the wholesome state is, it could well be a jhana, or a something that is beneficial for them. (PS. you’ve got this one under ‘subhanimitta’)

  • AN6.28: “having established mindfulness before him, the basis for samadhi that he attended to during the day is still present to him”. This sutta doesn’t support my idea per se, but I don’t think it goes against it either.

  • This sutta also has Yaṃ nimittaṃ āgamma yaṃ nimittaṃ manasikaroto anantarā āsavānaṃ khayo hoti, taṃ nimittaṃ na jānāti na passati, which I think you may have missed. Here ‘cause/basis’ could also work very well, as a cause for ending the asavas.

However, I struggle a bit with MN36:

  • tasmiṃyeva purimasmiṃ samādhinimitte ajjhattameva cittaṃ saṇṭhapemi sannisādemi ekodiṃ karomi samādahāmi, yena sudaṃ niccakappaṃ viharāmī.: “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.”

In this translation it seems as if only the verb samādahāmi applies to samādhinimitte, but saṇṭhapemi sannisādemi ekodiṃ karomi also do. This is one reason for me to doubt ‘on the object of samadhi’ for samādhinimitte. It’s also interesting that here again samadhinimitta occurs in the context of going into samadhi, not in the context of already being in samadhi. This also suggests ‘cause’ to me. It also seems more reasonable the Buddha abides in a cause/basis for samadhi constantly (ie. having no hindrances), instead of constantly “in the same object”. (yena here used in the sense of “where” supposedly)

Grammatical it is a bit hard to make sense of, though, since samādhinimitte is locative (“on/in/at/regarding the samādhinimitta”), not instrumental or ablative which imply cause. But in English we’d say “on that foundation/basis”, which sort of means “with that cause”, so maybe that’s what’s is happening here.

Or could this be an instance of what Wijesekara says in Syntax of the Cases?

The various nuances expressed by the loc. in Pāli just as in Skr., bring it into contact not only with the dat. but even with other cases, especially the inst. Kaccāyana lays down (312) that the loc. is used sometimes in the sense of the inst., the vutti illustrating it with such examples as ‘pattesu piṇḍāya caranti’ and ‘pathesu gacchanti’. There are a good many instances of the loc. concurring with an inst. of means in general, including such divisions of it as that of instrument, cause and even of agency.

Seems a bit farfetched, but considering all the other occurrences make more sense to me using ‘cause/basis for samadhi’ …

Any thoughts?

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I’m glad you’re interested in these nuances!

Re. AN.103: here I put nimitta into the ‘results’ category because of the sutta context. When it says “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.” Why would I become lazy if I looked at a basis for samadhi? To me it makes more sense if here the samadhi is on some level already established, and I’d get less motivated to go further.

In general I don’t understand the word “base” well and think it should be replaced by something more concrete. So I’d rather take ‘cause’ if you mean that.

What I mean with result is “something that shows me that a certain level of samadhi has been developed”, which is different than the samadhi itself. Samadhi is not only the fully developed 4th jhana. I think anything from 2nd jhana up we can call with good backup as proper samadhi. So when we practice there are already signs along the way that we practice correctly and that it’s going in the right direction, i.e. a deepening of the already emerging samadhi.

So it might be a matter of taste I guess to see the nimitta at this stage as a sign of an already partly emerged samadhi, or as the cause for a deepening of the samadhi. I have my reasons to prefer the first, but beyond the quotes cannot back it up further.

Hi Gabriel,

Thanks for the reply on AN3.102.

As far as I’m aware samadhi is occasionally used to describe a state before the jhanas, but that is quite rare. Usually I think it is safe to assume that samadhi equals at least the first jhana, as that is samma samadhi. When you have samma samadhi then there are no hindrances, so also no laziness. But if you are still practicing to attain samadhi (i.e. you are working on a cause or basis for samadhi) then there may still be laziness/drowsiness )

But that is not too much of importance here, because this sutta seems to not really apply to one single meditation session, but more the general attitude one has towards meditation (too slack or too tense). If you see samadhi as the calm aspect of the mind, then you can see how a meditator who only sticks to this may forget to arouse energy and thus become lazy.

But I also must admit just this single instance can not really prove things one way or the other. That’s why I’ve looked at all of them. Since they can all be interpreted as “cause for samadhi”, and some don’t make sense as “object of samadhi” (which on top of that is not very literal afaik) this makes me assume “cause for samadhi” is better for samadhinimmitta. It’s just a quick thing I realized while reading your collection, though. I haven’t really thought it through much.

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Here the sutta puts it straight - ‘nimitta’ (representation) in the context of samadhi is not a physical object (e.g. skeleton), but a recognition, perception (saññā) of it. For example, one can capture the representation (nimitta) of the skeleton, and then continue to practice without a physical object.

For translators unfamiliar with samadhi traditions this can be hard to understand, but this distinction between object-support (ārammaṇa, ālambana) of samadhi and physical object per se is essential for all Indian contemplative traditions.

MN 28: And his mind, having made an element its objective support (dhātārammaṇameva), enters into [that new objective support] and acquires confidence, steadiness, and resolution.

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Except that sañña is not really used as an object in any other sutta, as far as I know. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

In other suttas one is told to develop the perception of asubha to remove lust, not take perception of asubha as ones object… So that applies here too. The perception of the skeleton (asubha) leads to the removal of lust. As so nimitta is not the object of samadhi, but the cause of it.

That’s how I see it anyway. I think it makes more sense.

Wth kindness,
Sunyo

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The Western notion of “object” may lead here to confusion, since it often denotes “something material that may be perceived by the senses”.

Nimitta - as in case of asubha-saññā, - is indeed not taken as ones object, it is attended to:

Ko panāvuso hetu ko paccayo. Yena anuppanno vā rāgo uppajjati, uppanno vā rāgo bhiyyobhāvāya vepullāya saṃvattatī’ti? Subhanimittantissa vacanīyaṃ.
_ _
Tassa subhanimittaṃ ayoniso manasikaroto anuppanno ceva rāgo uppajjati. Uppanno ca rāgo bhiyyobhāvāya vepullāya saṃvattati. Ayaṃ kho āvuso hetu, ayaṃ paccayo, yena anuppanno vā rāgo uppajjati, uppanno vā rāgo bhiyyobhāvāya vepullāya saṃvattatī’ti.

"[Then if they ask,] ‘But what, friends, is the reason, what the cause, why unarisen passion arises, or arisen passion tends to growth & abundance?’ ‘The theme of the attractive,’ it should be said. ‘For one who attends inappropriately to the theme of the attractive, unarisen passion arises and arisen passion tends to growth & abundance…’

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.068.than.html

As ancient Greeks noted as well, it is attention to inner representations of something as attractive, which brings about passion. For example, one sees a woman and pays attention to inner representations of her form as beautiful.

In contrast, representations that are suitable for samādhi, color perception in such a way that unskilful behaviour lessens. For example, representation of skeleton colors perception of all human bodies so that they are seen mostly as skeletons, - thus preventing lust.

Hence switching the direction of attention from one kind of nimitta’s to another, or from one kind of saññā to another, is a key instrument:

(1) Tasmātiha tvaṃ moggallāna yathā saññino te viharato taṃ middhaṃ okkamati, taṃ saññaṃ mā manasākāsi. taṃ saññaṃ mā bahulamakāsi. Ṭhānaṃ kho panetaṃ moggallāna vijjati yaṃ te evaṃ viharato taṃ middhaṃ pahīyetha.

"Well then, Moggallana, whatever perception you have in mind when drowsiness descends on you, don’t attend to that perception, don’t pursue it. It’s possible that by doing this you will shake off your drowsiness.

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an07/an07.058.than.html

In samādhi, nimitta is attended to:

Evameva kho bhikkhave adhicittamanuyuttena bhikkhunā tīṇi nimittāni kālena kālaṃ manasikātabbāni: kālena kālaṃ samādhinimittaṃ manasikātabbaṃ. Kālena kālaṃ paggahanimittaṃ manasikātabbaṃ. Kālena kālaṃ upekkhānimittaṃ manasikātabbaṃ.

"In the same way, a monk intent on heightened mind should attend periodically to three themes: he should attend periodically to the theme of concentration; he should attend periodically to the theme of uplifted energy; he should attend periodically to the theme of equanimity.

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.100.11-15.than.html

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Yes, correct. The ‘object of meditation’ could be even an emotion, loving-kindness for example. When an impermanent (physical) object like the breath is perceived, it’s impermanence is noted via the mental identification or labelling-sanna (as sanna is part of the ‘Buddhist’ apparatus of perception). AN10.60 Girimananda sutta AN7.46 Sanna sutta shows a plethora of such meditations.

With metta

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