On tortoises and samādhi

In the Great Jhana Wars, one of the battlefronts is the question of what exactly happens after jhana. Crudely put, the “weak jhana” advocates say that one does insight while still inside the jhana, while the “strong jhana” advocates say that one withdraws from jhana before doing insight.

Now, I don’t want to discuss all the issues here, but I do want to draw attention to one little sutta that, I believe, has some bearing on the question, but is little noticed. The text is SN 35.240. It gives a nice simile of a tortoise and a jackal. Let me share my translation of the relevant portions here.

Once upon a time, mendicants, a tortoise was grazing along the bank of a river in the afternoon. At the same time, a jackal was also hunting along the river bank. The tortoise saw the jackal off in the distance hunting, so it drew its limbs and neck inside its shell, and kept still and silent.

But the jackal also saw the tortoise off in the distance grazing. So it went up to the tortoise and waiting nearby, thinking: ‘When that tortoise sticks one or other of its limbs or neck out from its shell, I’ll grab it right there, rip it out, and eat it!’

But when that tortoise didn’t extend one or other of its limbs or neck from its shell, the jackal got bored and left, since it couldn’t find a way in.

In the same way, Māra the Wicked One is always waiting nearby, thinking: ‘Hopefully I can find a way in through the ear, nose, tongue, body, or mind.’

The crucial point is the two words that describe the tortoise “drawing in” his limbs (samodahati) and “sticking them out” (abhininnāmeti). Samodahati is from the same root as samādhi, and the similarity between the tortoise and a meditator in samadhi should be obvious.

But abhininnāmeti is even more interesting. It’s a rare use of this term, although not unique. A similar usage is found in SN 4.24, where it’s applied to a crab that extends its limbs, to similarly disastrous results: a cruel gang of kids break them off. Normally, however, the term is used to describe what a meditator does after fourth jhana:

When their mind is unified in samādhi like this—purified, bright, spotless, rid of taints, pliable, workable, steady, and attained to stillness—they turn it toward recollection of past lives.

The root of abhininnameti is namati, to bend or turn, hence the usual translation. However, if the tortoise simile is a good example of the colloquial meaning, perhaps we should be saying a meditator “extends” or “projects” their mind rather than “turns” it. It would make far more sense in the context of samadhi.

Like a tortoise, a meditator keeps their mind withdrawn—the five limbs (including the neck) of the tortoise are explicitly compared to the five senses—and when ready they “project” their mind back out to investigate higher understandings.

What stops this example from being conclusive is that the application of the metaphor doesn’t use the context of samadhi. Rather, it uses sense restraint. Still, the idea is similar.


Note: I subsequently looked closer into nibbidā, and concluded some of the things I said here were wrong. But I leave it so that the following discussion makes sense.

Incidentally, the passage nicely illustrates another technical term, too. The jackal gets bored, nibbijja, related to the very common doctrinal term nibbidā. While nibbidā is usually translated as "disenchantment* or “disillusionment”, it sometimes has a stronger sense and is rendered as “repulsion”. However, this context—and it is not alone—shows that, while it sometimes has the strong sense of “repulsion”, it can also be used in a milder sense of “gets bored with” or “gets tired of”.

We find a similar sense in the related passages at SN 4.24 and SN 4.25, where Māra, failing to find a weak spot in the Buddha, speaks nibbejanīyā gāthāyo, “verses of disillusionment”. Here it refers to the sadness of failure, giving up the fight.

Perhaps, indeed, we should be using these terms rather than “disenchantment” or “disillusionment”. Nibbidā is specifically about the emotional push away from something, not about “seeing through illusions”. We could maybe use “disinterest”, or perhaps better “being fed up”. (Actually, the best translation would be ennui, but it’s just too French!)

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or “satiety/oversatiation”, “having enough”

the word disgust is too etymologically connected with food consumption through gustus - taste and thus distaste for the world which to me as a non-native speaker sounds milder than disgust

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Interesting! I had been looking for a mention of “sense withdrawal” in the suttas. A little while back I was trying to do a little comparative study of pratyāhara (sense withdrawal or maybe fasting of the senses?) in the samaṇa traditions.

I had only found these:

  • sn35.127 - guarding the sense faculties by not grasping at the signs and features of sense objects
  • sn35.120 - guarding the sense faculties by not grasping at the signs and features of sense objects
  • sn35.94 - restraining from pleasant and unpleasant sensations/feelings arising from contact with each of the senses, not greedily enjoying nor angrily averting
  • an5.113 - being intolerant of sense impressions prevents you from jhāna, being tolerant of sense impressions opens the way

The reason why I was investigating this topic to begin with was because of it’s use in the Yoga Sūtras of Pataññjali. There, it is at the precipice between the “external” practices and “internal” practices of jhāna/samādhi; in other words, withdrawing to the internal world. So I think it would be fair to say that sense restraint is close to, if not synonymous with, jhāna/samādhi. That’s in the Yoga Sūtra at least, in the suttas maybe it can be related to that phrase from the standard jhāna formula: vivicceva kāmehi (withdrawn/cut-off from sensuality)?

In the Upaniśads, I think there is mention of a turtle metaphor for sense withdrawal where the five limbs are the “lower” senses and the shell is the mind. I can’t find the reference now unfortunately.

Then, much later during the medieval Indian period, in one of the 3 popular haṭha yoga texts (the Gheranda Samhita), there is another mention of pratyāhara:

  • The restless and unsteady mind is to be reined in from wherever it goes and brought under control…
  • Wherever the sight goes the mind follows, so draw it back and bring it under control…
  • Hold the mind back from sounds: whether complimentary, rude, pleasant, or horrible, and bring it under control… etc.

The emphasis on control (perhaps implying a controller) is more yogic than Buddhist. So that is one difference between the descriptions, but even within the suttas there seems to be quite a few different ways or aspects of approaching sense withdrawal. It would be interesting to further investigate.

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All interesting suggestions. At the moment I am using “disillusionment”, which means I am forced into such appalling constructions as:

Being disillusioned, they become dispassionate.

Perhaps we could use “disinterest/lose interest” for viraga and have:

Being fed up, they lose interest.

Not quite. In the suttas, sense restraint is a preliminary practice. It doesn’t mean withdrawing of the senses; in fact the Buddha explicitly repudiates this view. Instead it means to use the senses with wisdom and mindfulness so that they don’t become a basis for unwholesome qualities. As such, it is a preliminary practice to jhana/samadhi. There, the senses are actually withdrawn for a time, which, as you say, is specified in the phrase vivicceva kamehi.

This is why it feels to me that the simile here doesn’t exactly match up with the explanation. Sometimes these things get a little confused, so maybe that has happened here. Or maybe it is just my deficient understanding!

The yogic tradition, I believe, is talking a bout a similar practice with such terms as pratyahara and samyama, however it is not always obvious exactly how these map on to the Buddhist terms.

Do let us know if you come across it.

By the way, i’ve corrected the formatting in your post a little, I hope you don’t mind. To make a list, hit enter twice, then insert “hyphen + space” and your list items will work just fine.

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Hi Bhante,

Very interesting and inspiring indeed.

I see we still don’t have this sutta available here in English.

It would be great to have it translated into readable, simple and inspiring English and then published in SC! :slight_smile:

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This makes sense, thanks for clarifying Bhante. I think you are saying there are two levels being discussed, a practice/preliminary level of guarding the senses and the actual withdrawal at the onset of spiritual seclusion.

[quote]It doesn’t mean withdrawing of the senses; in fact the Buddha explicitly repudiates this view[/quote] Meaning that it isn’t actually a withdrawal of the lower senses into the mind, but just the withdrawal from desire in reference to the lower senses?

Another difference between the yoga sutric meditation tradition and Buddhist is the presence of an object in these special mind states. In yoga sūtra there are specific objects the mind in saṃyama (dharaṇa(sati)+dhyāna(jhāna)+samādhi) is directed (extended/projected?) towards. AFAIK, in all the jhāna formulas in the suttas there is never an object mentioned. For me at least, this leads to some confusion. Some teachers say that the mind remains on the object of sati from the preliminary practice (breathing for instance) and others say the mind should let go of that object and become absorbed in the spiritual pleasure of the jhāna.

The only times that directedness/extension/projection of mind is mentioned in the suttas, to my limited knowledge, is after the jhānas like in kāyagatāsati where the mind is flexed towards the realization of super-knowledges. Or in the few places where the formless attainments are listed after jhāna.

Regarding the quote from the Upaniśads my memory could be entirely mistaken. I haven’t even read them in their entirety, can you recommend any references/translations?

Regarding the post formatting, thank you for correcting it for me, I’ve done that before and will try to be mindful enough to properly format in the future.

Not “spiritual seclusion”, but specifically when entering a state of samadhi.

Yes; sense restraint (indriyasamvara) is withdrawal of desire for the senses, while samadhi/jhana is the withdrawal of the senses altogether, leaving only mind consciousness.

Indeed.

But to clarify a philosophical point, in the EBTs, the notion of “object” is absent and best avoided. When we speak of an “object”, we can only mean something that exists “objectively” of the consciousness that knows it. But in the EBTs, consciousness always exists interdependently with that which it is aware of. While the term “object” is valid in terms of later Abhidhammic Buddhism, it is not in terms of early Buddhism. This sounds like a technical detail, but it has massive repercussions in how meditation is actually performed.

Let us therefore think in terms of a subject or theme of meditation. And you are quite right, in the EBTs, with one or two minor exceptions, the subjects and themes of meditation are spoken of as practices to support gaining samadhi/jhana, not as things you’re aware of in such a state.

In this, it’s likely that the Yoga Sutra is closer to the Abhidhamma.

That’s right; although it’s not just a few places. It’s a stock passage, which occurs maybe 40 times in the suttas. Actually, doing this search i just came across another reference, SN 4.24, where it’s a crab that “extends” its claws. This supports the idea that we should use “extend, project” rather than “turn”.

When online, I usually use the texts on sacredtexts.com. But as far as I know, there are no really accurate and modern translations available online.

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Thanks again; an important distinction to point out. There was a Bhikku Bodhi article or talk I consumed recently where he talked about how in the EBT’s there isn’t much talk of the nominalized? noun-form suññatā (emptiness), instead the adjective suñña (empty) is usually used. Perhaps a related point.

Nice!

Probably a minor philosophical question, but what about the passages talking about the formless attainments where there is awareness in bases/spheres beyond the base/sphere of boundless consciousness? Also, I always wondered what was meant in the lines on formless attainments going “seeing space is limited thinking there is further escape” or something along those lines. Is thinking here maybe something more like intuitive knowing? Also what is aware in the realms/mind-states beyond consciousness? MN111 lists a lot of mental factors but has a very abhidhamma-like flavor.

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Oh, yes, this doesn’t mean “thinking” at all, it’s a mistranslation. The Pali idiom uses the particle iti, usually abbreviated as -ti. This acts in a similar way to quote marks in modern English. It is frequently used to indicate speech, and also to indicate thinking.

But it is also used in a more abstract sense, to indicate a reflexive context, where a verb is implied. It’s hard to render such idioms without a verb, so translators sometimes supply a verb such as “thinking” here. But we should use “knowing” or “aware” instead:

Aware that space is infinite, they entered and remained in the dimension of infinite space.

You could also use quotes here:

Knowing ‘space is infinite’, they entered and remained in the dimension of infinite space.

But I think that is more likely to suggest a “literal” sense.

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Found it! Not the Upaniśads, but the Bhagavad Gita Ch.2 śloka 58:

When also, like the tortoise its limbs, he can completely withdraw the senses from their objects, then his wisdom becomes steady.

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Fantastic; it’d be too much to ask for the Sanskrit, I suppose?

yadā saṅharatē cāyaṅ kūrmō.ṅgānīva sarvaśaḥ.

indriyāṇīndriyārthēbhyastasya prajñā pratiṣṭhitā৷৷2.58৷৷

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Okay, thanks. So saṅharati is a slightly different term to those used in Buddhism, but similar in sense. Here, indriya means “senses” just as in Buddhism; and it uses indriyartha to mean “sense objects”. I don’t think we find the same usage in Pali, where ārammaṇa is usually used for “object”; I’m not sure if this usage is found in Sanskrit Buddhism.

Dear Bhante,

Would you please write a bit more about this? Especially the last line.

Sorry if you’ve already touched on it else where…I’ve been “skimming and scanning” and may’ve missed it. This paragraph jumped out though…

Well, it’s a complex topic, which is why I kind of skipped over it!

In terms of the actual meditation, the basic idea, fundamental to the vipassanavada, is that the mind pays attention to some “object”. The senses, or else the mind objects of various kinds, exist in the “ultimate sense”, that is, they have their own intrinsic essence (sabhāva), they exist in their own right (sarūpato). You can be aware of them or not, but they exist nevertheless. When a tree falls in the forest and there’s no-one to hear it, it still makes a sound. This fundamental philosophical assumption guides the whole approach to meditation.

This assumption doesn’t merely affect the philosophy of meditation theory, it guides the practices and values of meditators. If you look at how Buddhist meditation is taught in traditional Theravadin countries, it is highly “objective”.

Remember, virtually all the meditation techniques we know of today were developed in the last century, based on Burmese innovations, and derived from Abhidhamma/commentarial perspectives. The approach to meditation came to strongly emphasize performing an objective series of “exercises”, so the meditator can “complete a course” of meditation. The accomplishment of some objectively measured standard is felt to equate to some kind of spiritual attainment, in some cases celebrated by handing out a certificate.

Paranoid about the whole “not-self” thing, this approach shuns any idea of personal growth. The point is to reach some kind of objectively defined state in a process of meditation, not to become a better person. In my view, this misses much of the point of the eightfold path, which is well-rounded and balanced.

So it’s common for meditators to successfully complete a course, attain some kind of “state”, then go back to being exactly what they were before. Not everyone, obviously, but more than you’d think. The psychologists call it “spiritual bypassing”. When you’re doing these practices, the teachers are only concerned with whether you attain some state or other, not with what kind of person you are, whether you can integrate what is going on, what it means to you, how it relates to how you live your life, or anything else.

One result is that, when imported to countries such as the US, such an impoverished praxis begged for more dimensions, which came to be filled by new age, feel-good psychology, rather than by, well, Buddhism.

I’m exaggerating for simplicity’s sake here, there is of course much variation and nuance in how these things play out. Different teachers and traditions will handle this in different ways, I’m just trying to draw out a tendency.

The major exception to this tendency in modern times is the Thai forest tradition, which is relatively independent of the Abhidhamma. There, there is little emphasis on the correct performance of meditation methods, and much more on the subjective attitude that you bring to practice.

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I quite like the translation ‘distaste’ though it might not flow very well in some of the passages where nibbidā is used. The nice thing about ‘distaste’ over disgust is it doesn’t have a strong connotation of aversion. I think disgust is a very problematic due to the connotatin in English (and can lead to unnecessary confusion especially in people new to Buddhsit teachings or when not understood in context).

Actually I’m not sure from your post if you’re saying you think ‘distaste’ works or not, but it stood out to me as I’ve never heard anyone suggest this.

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:pray:

DearBhante @sujato,

Thank you so much! This was a great mini-desana for me and a confirmation of what I’ve been doing lately. I’ve always had problems watching any “object” during bhavana but when I just be with the moment, being appreciative and content with whatever is happening to my body and mind, I get to be quite still. Moreover, I also can attest that sila, caga, and wholesome attitudes are most imporant in my bhavana practice (recently gone back to caganussati as I do help out a lot at the local Lao wat whenever I can, serving both the mendicants and lay community during dana)

Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu!:heart_eyes:

with reverence, respect and gratitude,
russ

:pray:

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thank you Linda for a native speaker feedback, yes i do think distaste might convey the idea

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Try the Kshurika Upanishad? It is in the Bhagavad Gita as well.

In another tortoise metaphor, I’m curious, why is the tortoise the five khandhas in the Vammika Sutta (MN 23)?

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considering the next items, knife and chopping block as a metaphor for 5 strings of sensuality and a piece of meat as a metaphor for delight and lust, tortoise as a metaphor for 5 senses might fit better

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