SuttaCentral

On the authenticity of modern meditation methods

I’ve been reading a few sources, books, essays and teachings that discuss the idea that the current orthodoxy of Theravada and its modern meditation methods show great differences with what the suttas tell us (especially the ones characterized as being part of the early doctrinal strata) about meditation, jhana and its importance in the buddhist soteriology (i.e. the path towards “salvation” from dukkha and the cycle of rebirth).

For instance, we have a few quotes (which I hope are not taken out of context) by Ajahn Chah which seem to contradict the vital importance given to jhanas in the Sutta Pitaka, placing them as a necessary factor for uprooting the asavas:

  • Question: Is it necessary to be able to enter absorption in our practice?
    Answer: No, absorption is not necessary. You must establish a modicum of tranquillity and one-pointedness of mind. Then you use this to examine yourself. Nothing special is needed. If absorption comes in your practice, this is OK too. Just don’t hold on to it. Some people get hung up with absorption. It can be great fun to play with. You must know proper limits. If you are wise, then you will know the uses and limitations of absorption, just as you know the limitations of children verses grown men. (Kornfield, 1996:42)
  • We must use Upacara Samadhi. Here, we enter calm and then, when the mind is sufficiently calm, we come out and look at outer activity. Looking at the outside with a calm mind gives rise to wisdom. (Chah, 1995:23)
  • That which can be most harmful to the meditator is Absorption Samadhi (JHANA), the samadhi with deep, sus­tained calm. This samadhi brings great peace. Where there is peace, there is happiness. When there is happiness, at­tachment and clinging to that happiness arise. The medi­tator doesn’t want to contemplate anything else, he just wants to indulge in that pleasant feeling. When we have been practicing for a long time we may become adept at entering this samadhi very quickly. As soon as we start to note our meditation object, the mind enters calm, and we don’t want to come out to investigate anything. We just get stuck on that happiness. This is a danger to one who is practicing meditation. (Chah, 1995:23)

As another example (and I think this could be less controversial) some investigations conclude that methods such as Vipassana are not “methods” in the suttas, but qualities to be developed (along with samatha) within the practice of Jhana. And so, all the foundations of modern vipassana meditation would come from later sources, and not from the Buddha himself. The same could be said about concepts such as kasina, access/momentary concentration, nimitta (as lights seen during meditation), etc.

How well accepted is this idea between bhikkhu/nis, scholars, and lay practitioners?
And what consequences does this have for our practice?
Should we look for methods of meditation that could go back to the ones described in the suttas, putting aside (or at least, in a secondary place) other sources, such as Abhidhamma or Visuddhimagga?

Just to be clear, I’m not necessarily saying that modern methods are wrong or that they contradict the path laid by the Buddha. I’m just asking if those methods are recognized as not authentic (if we define “authenticity” as the quality of something conforming in form and content with what the Buddha supposedly taught, if we have any way of knowing that with more or less degree of certainty), although useful, inside buddhist circles in general.

Thanks in advance for your time.
Kind regards!

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I’m essentially a lay Mahaviharavasin so personally I follow the method that is laid out in the Visuddhimagga, having had more success with it than with more modern interpretations and methods over the years. The Visuddhimagga is based on tradition, and the text itself I believe was proof read by the elders at the Mahavihara. That places it in good standing with me and so, by extension, the meditation methods and explanations within it.

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Thanks for your answer!

There’s a question I always find asking myself:
How do people know if their practiced methods are successful? Is it by comparing one’s experience to textual sources? If so, how can we know if such textual sources are describing correctly (i.e. in concordance to the teaching of the Buddha as taught in the -allegedly- earlier strata of doctrines in the suttas) the kind of things to be expected from the followed meditation practice?

In other words: if I propose myself to follow the instructions of the Visuddhimagga, how can I be sure that the instructions explained there do not contradict the expected results of the early suttas?

Another related question: why do modern teachers (or even Buddhaghosa) needed to add such new concepts to what’s already taught in the suttas? Are the suttas not clear enough?

Kind regards!

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If say you are practicing mindfulness of breathing you know if it’s successful or not by if you enter Jhana or not, which is absorption.

In relation to something else you said in your OP, kasina and nimitta are both in the suttas. Access concentration is not but I think we have to remember that the suttas we have, especially the ones dealing with meditation, are likely very stripped down versions so as to aid with memorisation. If we take the anapanasati sutta you can’t really just read it and know fully what you are doing and the ins and outs of it. It needs to be further elucidated. Once you have done that you have basically commented upon it. Personally I see no issue in then turning to the oldest of commentaries, closest in time to the Buddha and which come from a noble sangha of practicing monks and nuns.

That’s partly how I arrived at my position at any rate. Others will naturally take a different view of things and will be more suspicious of the commentaries and tradition in general.

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What I think it makes this issue more complicated is the absense of total consensus about what constitutes jhana. And I think this lack of agreement is the cause of the labelling of different definitions of jhana as sutta style, visuddhimagga style, light jhana, hard jhana, EBT jhana, and so on.

Considering the above, I seems hard to just know a priori if one’s efforts are well placed just by judging if we attain jhana or not.

What are your thoughts on this?

EDIT: You’re right about kasinas and nimitta being part of the suttas. On the former, I found some analysis suggesting that kasinas are not an EBT concept; on the latter, I remember finding the concept on some discourses, but none of them showing nimitta as a synonym for lights or something alike appearing as meditation gets deeper. I may be wrong, though, so please, correct me if that’s the case.

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The OP in this thread started off asking very valid questions about the uptake of the the EBTs in contemporary meditation teaching. This is a valid line of discussion so long as it’s confined to the place of the suttas in public Buddhist discourse. This Forum focuses on the texts and interpreting them and it discourages discussion of personal practice issues.

Of course it’s quite OK to use a PM (private message) to raise personal practice issues with a selected group of Forum members.

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Hi @Gillian
I’m not sure if I understand what you’re saying.
Did I ask or comment something outside the allowed topics of discussion? If so, I’d appreciate if you could indicate specifically what that is, so I could edit it or delete it.
This is an issue (about the discrepancies between the instructions in the suttas and modern approaches, and not about personal experiences) that it has been bothering me for the longest time, and cannot find a satisfying answer. It seems that asking about this is discouraged in a lot of places, so I’d be really thankful if this discussion is allowed to continue.

Thanks in advance!

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Thanks a lot for checking in. :smiley: :smiley:

That’s the bit I think is perfectly valid. :slight_smile: You’ve made an observation that many people (myself included) ponder. And of course many of us are interested in this issue from the point of view of how our own practice is developing. However, this forum was set up to support the translation and dissemination of the EBTs and the discussion forum is a bit of an added extra. The moderators are charged (besides keeping a watch that everybody plays nicely and are kind to each other) with seeing that issues in peoples personal practice aren’t shared in public. Those who are qualified to give good advice are unwilling to do so to virtual strangers that they don’t know at all, and at the same time there’s a risk that those who aren’t qualified to advise will jump in and say all sorts of misleading things.

I don’t feel that you did overstep the rule, but while I can see that the following is asked in general terms

it could be that people might jump in to share their own experiences or to ask you to give examples of what you mean.

Please forgive me if I have acted over-anxious about this. :pray:
I wonder what @Gabriel_L thinks?

\\\

Regarding the Visuddhimagga, I’d say that you will find conflicting views from different people, and some of them very deeply held.

Regarding Buddhaghosa, I don’t know and will be interested to hear what other people say. I wonder if @Khemarato.bhikkhu has time to respond?

Regarding kasinas in the EBT, Bhante Sujato gave a course on the Vsm recently in which he said that the kasina referred to in the sutta is some type of ?mental image (I think - Bhante @Sujato please correct me if I’m wrong) whereas the Vsm gives explicit instructions for the manual construction of kasinas: which is not drawn from the suttas.

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Thank you for your time and disposition to explain.
:slight_smile:

Now that you say it, I see how could this question derail beyond the limits of the forum. I’ll try to keep an eye on my questions and answers.

And thanks for your answer as well. It’s really sad to see that in some places it is seen as a lack of respect or as conceit to question the method, and to do it without making it seem as if I’m implying that such methods are invalid or useless (although in part I understand it since I’m using the word “authenticity”, and I guess no one wants to have the authenticity of its method questioned).

Thanks again!

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In SuttaCentral
the importance of jhāna is well clarified. Going by EBT only is what is best.
Sukhī hotu

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Yeah this is a super important but sensitive topic.

I’m still doing my own research and study into these questions, so please take the following with a grain of salt or even feel free to jump in if I’ve misunderstood something.

My understanding of the historical situation is that Buddhaghosa redefinedjhana” in terms of “approach” and “absorption.”


No. Ajahn Chah is contradicting the vital importance given to absorption by the Vsm. Very different thing.

Again, this definition of jhana is the Vsm’s, not the sutta’s.

So, this is quite backwards. It will take some time to explain why.

Remember that Burma adores the commentarial tradition. So, as a Burmese meditation master, you can’t just come out and say “the Vsm is wrong” like Ajahn Chah could or even “we’ve interpreted it wrong and here’s what’s right…”

They found themselves just having to accept that “jhana” (again, contra the suttas) now simply means “absorption.” Can’t do anything about it, that’s just what it means now.

So when the Burmese say something like “you don’t need jhana” they really mean “you don’t need absorption” (same as Ajahn Chah says in the quotes above). They are not saying “samma samādhi is not the 8th step in the Noble Path.” The Burmese just typically use the Pāli terms as they’re used by Buddhaghosa.

This distinction between Vsm’s “absorption” jhanas and the EBT (“real”) Jhanas came to be known as “samatha” vs “vipassana” jhanas—I assume again borrowing language from the Vsm to “justify” this distinction and not appear to be breaking with Tradition™ even as they (in terms of practice) radically break with tradition. :confounded:

Now, that said, I myself use those terms to differentiate tranquility and insight practices as I think there is a useful distinction to be made there. This does have a canonical basis, so I personally don’t go quite as far as Keren Arbel does when she discards samatha jhanas entirely, even though I agree with her basic diagnosis.


So, actually, I personally view the Burmese vipassana techniques as likely to be very close to what the Buddha and his early disciples taught. It’s just that the terms they use to describe and justify that technique are necessarily different from the Pāli words used 2500 years ago, as those words changed their meaning during that time (as words are wont to!)


Yes, here you’re simply listing other terms the Vsm redefined. [Footnote: “Vsm redefined” is a shorthand here for a longer historical process of term drift which may have begun long before the Vsm and certainly has continued long after it.]

In general yes… but all contemporary Buddhist meditation teachers have been influenced by the Vsm Tradition in some way, so good luck escaping history!

Most people will find it very difficult to overcome their delusion without guidance from a teacher (see the aforementioned sutta) who can point out your blind spots. But, in the absence of one of those (and at the risk of getting mod-hammered for giving practical advice), by all means just read the ānāpānasati sutta and the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta and practice what it says :slight_smile:

Hope that helps to clarify this somewhat.

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Thank you, Bhante, for such a thorough and well-thought response!

This is a whole new perspective for me, so there’s little for me to say right now, other than “wow!”.
I’d let this sink in for a while.

In the meantime, I’ll keep reading a book I just started: Reexamining Jhana: Towards a Critical Reconstruction of Early Buddhist Soteriology, by Grzegorz Polak. Have you heard about it, or read it? If so, what are your thought on it? I’d be really wonderful to have your opinion on this work.

Thanks again!

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Sorry, I haven’t read it yet. It is in my (depressingly large) “To Read” pile though! As I said: I’m still very much a student on this one too :smile:

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MN8 is actually useful to study in this regard. This issue is ancient as well as modern. In MN8, the Buddha somewhat “dismisses” meditation:

MN8:7.1: It’s possible that some mendicant, with the giving up of pleasure and pain, and the ending of former happiness and sadness, might enter and remain in the fourth absorption, without pleasure or pain, with pure equanimity and mindfulness. They might think they’re practicing self-effacement. But in the training of the noble one these are not called ‘self-effacement’; they’re called ‘blissful meditations in the present life’.

This sutta is a bit shocking on first reading. Is the Buddha himself dismissing jhana? :scream_cat:

Yet the sutta continues…

Having clarified immersion as blissful meditations in the present life, the Buddha then then speaks about forty-four ethical points to Cunda:

MN8:12.1: Now, Cunda, you should work on self-effacement in each of the following ways. ‘Others will be cruel, but here we will not be cruel.’

In this way the discourse shifts from immersion to ethics. Indeed, further study reveals that there are three mutually supportive practices (ethics, wisdom, immersion). Most importantly, one needs to practice all three.

And after a truly massive discourse on ethics, the Buddha lightly finishes with:

MN8:17.3: Here are these roots of trees, and here are these empty huts. Practice absorption, Cunda! Don’t be negligent! Don’t regret it later! This is my instruction.”

In other words, the sutta itself circles back to absorption and so should we.

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AN8.53
“Sir, may the Buddha please teach me Dhamma in brief. When I’ve heard it, I’ll live alone, withdrawn, diligent, keen, and resolute.”

“Gotamī, you might know that certain things lead to passion, not dispassion; to being fettered, not to being unfettered; to accumulation, not dispersal; to more desires, not fewer; to lack of contentment, not contentment; to crowding, not seclusion; to laziness, not energy; to being hard to look after, not being easy to look after. You should definitely bear in mind that these things are not the teaching, not the training, and not the Teacher’s instructions.

You might know that certain things lead to dispassion, not passion; to being unfettered, not to being fettered; to dispersal, not accumulation; to fewer desires, not more; to contentment, not lack of contentment; to seclusion, not crowding; to energy, not laziness; to being easy to look after, not being hard to look after. You should definitely bear in mind that these things are the teaching, the training, and the Teacher’s instructions.”

AN5.79
there will be in the course of the future monks undeveloped in body… virtue… mind… discernment. They—being undeveloped in body… virtue… mind… discernment—will not listen when discourses that are words of the Tathagata—deep, profound, transcendent, connected with the Void—are being recited. They will not lend ear, will not set their hearts on knowing them, will not regard these teachings as worth grasping or mastering. But they will listen when discourses that are literary works—the works of poets, elegant in sound, elegant in rhetoric, the work of outsiders, words of disciples—are recited. They will lend ear and set their hearts on knowing them. They will regard these teachings as worth grasping and mastering. Thus from corrupt Dhamma comes corrupt discipline; from corrupt discipline, corrupt Dhamma.

“This, monks, is the fourth future danger, unarisen at present, that will arise in the future. Be alert to it and, being alert, work to get rid of it.

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The first meditator (highly learned in suttas and comentaries) who had doubts about the “Mahasi technique” was Mahasi Sayadaw himself.

The following questions and answers are from the booklet “An Interview with Mahasi Sayadaw,” prepared (in Burmese) by Thamanaykyaw and translated by U Hla Myint.

Q1. Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw, did you have full faith in Satipatthana Vipassana practice when you started it?

No, frankly I didn’t. I did not initially have full faith in it. So I don’t blame anybody for not having faith in practice before they start it. It is only because they have little or no experience with it. In 1939 when i was only eight Vassa(monastic years in term of seniority), much to my curiosity and confusion, a meditation master called Mingon Zetawin Sayadawji teaching. Note going when going; Note standing when standing; Note sitting when sitting; Note lying when lying; Note bending when bending; Note stretching when stretching; Note eating when eating. I got confused by the fact that there was no object to observe in ultimate sense, such as mind and body, and their impermanence, suffering and egolessness. But I gave it some consideration and thought: ‘How strange the Sayadawji teaches. I am sure he is highly learned, and is teaching from his own experience. It maybe it is too early for me to decide whether good or bad before I myself practise it’. Thus, I started to practise with him

His scholarship did not clear his doubts.

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I just thought I would mention here that the first goalpost on the path to Nibbana is Stream Entry… and for that, Jhana is not a must!

SN55.13
“Reverend, how many things do people have to give up and how many do they have to possess in order for the Buddha to declare that they’re a stream-enterer, not liable to be reborn in the underworld, bound for awakening?”

“Reverend, people have to give up four things and possess four things in order for the Buddha to declare that they’re a stream-enterer, not liable to be reborn in the underworld, bound for awakening.

:pray: :sunflower: :pray:

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There is another perspective which I sometimes mention because I don’t see it otherwise referenced: There is a real possibility that the Buddha taught people who believed in some atman differently than those open to anatman.

The context is this: If you had Brahmins or wanderers who based themselves on some fundamental concept of atman you cannot just slap them with anatta and expect that their system absorbs it. So far the theory. What can be shown in a statistical analysis of the suttas is that the Buddha taught anatta significantly less to Brahmins, instead focusing on the Eightfold Path, jhana, and samadhi.

Based on this research by Walser I did my own research into it and investigated if there are suttas which explicitly teach jhana/samadhi and anatta. And among the many hundreds of relevant suttas I could only find a handful in which these two teaching contexts were combined.

How does that relate to your question? Well, if anatta is a proper approach to liberation and it doesn’t necessarily rely on jhana/samadhi then we pretty much arrive at an attitude similar to Ajahn Chah’s. So in this roundabout way I tried to give EBT based legitimacy to this position.

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I am very grateful and appreciative of the EBT ‘movement’. It attempts to cut through all the proliferations of 2,500 years, and re-focus on what the Buddha taught. I know in my own case, that it was these obfuscations that made it almost impossible to recognise and find the Buddha Dhamma.

Each master/lineage has had their own method, that worked for them in their circumstances (causes and conditions). Each seeker of the truth has their own idiosyncratic journey - again due to causes and conditions. To expect that everyones journey will be the same is simply foolish… it is impossible

The beauty of what the Buddha taught is that it anticipates and allows these individual journeys to occur, it is not prescriptive in the sense that later ‘methods’ are. The more prescriptive/less flexible something is, the greater the danger that it will be a hindrance rather than a help to progress along the path.

But conventions have evolved to such an extent, that to question what some (past) master has said, is equivalent to blasphemy, and that is perhaps the greatest hindrance of them all.

I’m with the Buddha when he says - all you need are the 4 Noble Truths (including the 8 fold path)… It is just our seemingly insatiable hunger for ‘the right answer’ to whatever questions enter our heads that makes it so difficult to actually do what the Buddha asks. Contemplating the process of how/why these questions arise is something that may be worthwhile.

Simplicity is key.

And there you have yet another view :pray: :rofl:

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Yes, as a fellow user of the forum I always seek to remind myself and other that this is not a space to discuss practice as far as I understand the intent of those makeing this forum available to us.

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