Polak's Reexamining Jhanas

I was recently introduced to the very interesting book "Reexamining Jhana: Towards a Critical Reconstruction of Early Buddhist Soteriology, written by Grzegorz Polak.

You may have already heard or even read this book as it has been around for a while (since 2011). I was told that Polak is a Buddhist himself, and hence decided to investigate.

In a nutshell, the book message is:

  • Polak sees a problem in Buddhism with regards to its origins. He understands this problem is not widely recognised among Buddhist and sees it as something that should be taken seriously.

  • He is of the view that “Early Buddhism was not simply a philosophical doctrine or a set of meditative practices. It was a soteriological system, in which all the above mentioned constituents were linked in an organic way and only in this connection, they gained their true meaning”

  • In the specific case of Theravada he sees “fundamental discrepancies between the orthodox Theravāda doctrine (summarized in his view in the Visuddhimagga), and the earliest available teachings supposedly delivered by the Buddha, which are contained in the Suttapitaka of the Pāli Canon.” He also understands “major internal discrepancies are also present in the Suttapitaka itself.”

  • Furthermore, he narrows to the topic of controversies “connected with the status and the role of the meditative state known as ‘jhāna’.”

In chapter 1 he presents what he calls the “jhāna controversy”, which sets the stage for the rest of the book. In this first chapter he does as well

  1. seek to gauge earliness of specific jhana-related suttas;
  2. presents the view that early buddhist jhanas did not imply the cessation of senses and brings to the spotlight two suttas: the MN38 and the AN11.9
  3. links the method of meditation criticized by the Buddha in the AN11.9 with yogic meditation
  4. makes the point that early Buddhist jhāna was not originally a yogic type of meditation, and was in direct opposition to yoga
  5. he goes on and questions which sutta contains the original account of the boddhisatta’s road to awakening and points to the MN85 as being the true account, and hence a trustworthy source for understanding of the place and idea of jhana of early buddhism
  6. He also discards the MN26, questioning specifically the doctrinal relevance this sutta gives to the state of cessation of perception and feeling (saññāvedayitanirodha)

In the first half of chapter 2 he focuses mostly on questioning the relevance of the jhana / meditation systems/modes taught/described in the Visuddhimagga:

  1. he rules out kasina as having anything to do with jhana
  2. he questions the relevance of nimittas saying that most of arguments for it are supported by a misinterpretation of the SN 47.8, and calls the SN22.49 to support this understanding.
  3. he does as well point that the vitakka vicara of the Visudhimagga has little to do with the vitakka vicara of the suttas, and point similar issues with the relationship of jhana factors and the nivaranas
  4. most importantly, he draws the thesis that somehow the anapanasati that ended up encoded in the Visudhimagga (and possibly was practiced by the time of its compilation) had become a “yogic meditation technique”
  5. and that the state of cessation of perception and feeling only gained relevance because the original meaning of jhana had been lost sometime in time.

In the second half of chapter 2 he goes on and question how authentic can the meditative traditions of the Theravada be considered:

  1. he suggest that a meditation tradition in Theravada was lost and what is found nowadays is mostly traceable to the nineteenth century
  2. and this has much to do with the understanding the essence of Dhamma (and any hope to fulfill the path) would have been lost by the the fifth century after the Buddha’s passing away, as propheticised in AN8.53 and DN26

In my view, the most promising element of his conclusion chapter (“Perspectives”) is found in these paragraphs:

I will attempt to investigate the early Buddhist notion of liberating insight/ knowledge, conveyed through various terms such as: paññā, aññā, ñānadassanā, vipassanā.
I believe that the early Buddhist did not see liberating insight as a psychological phenomenon that takes place on the ‘field of consciousness’, ‘inside the mind’; that psychological phenomenon of ‘understanding’ is something that we can experience, be aware of.
Liberating insight was not seen as some sort of deliberately undertaken activity or as a form of conscious, active thinking. Such a view is a misconception, a theoretical proliferation, if we are to use an early Buddhist term.
One can only speak properly about liberating insight in connection to its effects; without them, liberating knowledge is an empty word. If one no longer clings to the objects of the six senses, no longer reacts to them with attachment or aversion, then we may say that he has achieved full insight into their impermanent nature.

He also has some very interesting view on the proper understanding of the satipatthana formula:

What is then the meaning of the four satipatthānas?

I will attempt to show, that this formula was supposed to denote four different aspects of the same practice: six-fold body as the field of practice (kāyānupassanā), vēdanas caused by the contact of the senses with their respective objects as the ultimate objects of contemplation (vedanānupassanā), the changed mind-states connected with this practice (cittānupassanā) and the progress from the nīvaran. as towards the bojjhangas (dhammānupassanā).
Each anupassanā was described in the terms of successive stages of progress in meditation. In addition to that, an additional general formula was applied to each of the satipatthānas stating that one should arrive at the stage ‘there is kāya/vedanā/citta/dhamma’ and that this vision leads to liberation through non-clinging.

On the other hand, I think that picking the meditation manual of a modern yoga guru (Swami Rama) to support his view that the painful practices of the boddhisatta described in the suttas were yogic and not Jain practices is a little tricky.

We know that sallekhana or santhara is a established practice of the Jains up to the point the gradual abandonment of water and food, culminating with the giving away of breathing.

If you search youtube for these words you may even watch a video of a Jain elder doing it and then being worshiped as a arihanta / arahant. I am very confident it was this practice that the boddhisatta pursued and almost resulted in his death!

I searched SuttaCentral’s Discourse and apparently no one has previously mentioned this author or his hypothesis.

Hence I start this post aiming at discussing his thesis / findings. Unfortunately, the book is not freely available. Aware of copyrights, I will avoid as much as possible overquote his work and hope others have already got access to the book.

As well, I wonder whether this could be an opportunity of inviting Polak himself to join the conversation here and walk us through the highlights of his understanding and hints of what may have been the jhana practice of early Buddhism.


What point is being made here, exactly? What exactly in MN 38, for example, is providing a different perceptive on jhana (since MN 38 appears to still describe developing the jhanas in the usual way)?

The non-yogic method (such as described in SN 48.10 or the final part of MN 118) is merely a different methodology thus how does this change the conception of jhana as having various jhana factors (such as five factored 1st jhana, etc)? .

The suttas do not mention jhana nimittas however meditators claim to experience them. My impression is the final nimitta is a feature of the consolidation of one-pointedness (ekkagatta), which is why the Buddha did not mention nimitta since mentioning one-pointedness was probably sufficient.

Criticizing the Visuddhimagga is not exactly something novel. When I first experienced Buddhism, which was in a monastery in Thailand, back in the 1980s, I recall most novice Western monks walking around with their ‘Bible-Visuddhimagga’. I sense that does not occur now as much as it used to back then. In contemporary Internet-Buddhism, the Visuddhimagga is rarely referred to.

I personally have posted this idea many times myself on the internet. However, Buddhism is not as dogmatic as Polak is (or I am :dizzy_face:). Buddhism contains many gradual methods. Often a person cannot jump immediately into the deep end of the stream. People may use a method until it stops bringing progress; then they search to refine the method or find a new method.

This generalisation may be problematic since many believe they are non-attached when they are not. How would the views of Polak reconcile with those of Ajahn Brahm, for example, who states jhanas are states of non-attachment?


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these speak to my sensibilities :slight_smile:


@Gabriel_L could you please point out what Polak’s scholarly contribution is? The critique of the visuddhimagga being to prominent in Theravada is indeed not new and a lot of the points you mentioned go in this direction.[quote=“gnlaera, post:1, topic:3262”]
It was a soteriological system

But that’s the whole point of Buddhism, that’s it’s a soteriological system, its goal is the final release, nibbana. I can’t see why that is noteworthy, unless he criticizes the monastic tradition that just talks and doesn’t practice.[quote=“gnlaera, post:1, topic:3262”]
early buddhist jhanas did not imply the cessation of senses

That would indeed be a biggie. But I don’t see how that can be sustained. General sense restraint is part even of the formula of the gradual path, before meditating.
AN 10.72: "In-and-out breathing is a thorn to the fourth jhāna."
That wouldn’t make sense with sense-perceptions going on, not to mention the “avitakka avicara” of the second jhana and the arupas. And there are probably more arguments. These are just texts, plus we have the ‘samadhi’ experiences of so many thai forest monks, described explicitly as states without sense perceptions.

What would ‘yogic meditation’ be at the time or before the Buddha? We have the mystical absorptions of the rishis, the ascetic practices, and the Buddha’s teachers. ‘Samadhi’ entered the upanishadic discourse only after the Buddha, and dhyana doesn’t appear there at all.
In short, I think I missed the scholarly contribution…


i just recently listened to a friendly debate between Ven Brahmali and Stephen Batchelor and can say that in Stephen’s outlook on the Dhamma liberation has no place, although he didn’t state that during the debate but it’s a corollary of the type of Buddhism he advocates calling it ‘secular’ where rebirth is rejected or at best is taken agnostic stance on

in the gradual path sense restraint as an individual factor is not associated with jhanas and in all expositions precedes them by a few other ones, and as far as i understand it’s to be practised during regular daily activities
sense restraint is not inactivation or withdrawal of the senses, but inactivation of clinging by and through the senses, it’s rather about brain than the senses themselves, one may become totally numb but that doesn’t relieve one from clinging


It’s probably true that most buddhists don’t take the dhamma as a literal path to liberation. In asia probably most people are reverential, ritualistic, devotional or hope for a rebirth at a better realm. In the west we have the very popular secular interpretation of buddhism. But seriously, apart from what people think buddhism is, aren’t the EBT obviously soteriological?
I took part in a christian-buddhist symposion once, and also the christian scientists didn’t speak once about salvation, it was all the time just St.Augustin here and Thomas Aquinas there. Nobody spoke about Jesus and his message of salvation. I guess our enlightened time finds the idea of salvation somewhat offensive.

Indeed I have no reference from the suttas that the jhanas, say 2-4, are free from sense perception. If anything the ‘animitta samadhi’ seems to be during or after the arupas only. It would be good to have texual clarity on this point, but I don’t know how to get it. Does Polak have an idea? The Thai masters don’t refer to jhana mostly and sometimes literally reject the jhana-notion, but when the refer to ‘samadhi’ it seems to be a state where they are devoid of sense perception.

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Thanks for this reference, @Gabriel_L . I looked up the author and he has been writing on some very interesting topics, focusing on EBT jhanas. Here’s a link to another of his published essays: http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/136

In this paper I attempt to present a model of liberating insight as an intrinsic quality of the jhāna meditative state through an interdisciplinary approach relying on textual studies as well as on the new developments in the field of rapidly developing cognitive sciences. In the first part of the paper I analyze various concepts of liberating insight present in the Suttapiṭaka and the way they are connected to the development of the four jhāna-s. Then I point out some fundamental difficulties connected with the traditional Buddhist model of insight understood as a meditative method on its own, distinct from a jhāna meditative state. Later I attempt to propose an explanation of how and why the original concept of liberating insight as an intrinsic quality of jhāna states underwent a radical evolution, which has unfortunately led to both textual discrepancies and serious problems on a practical and psychological level. In order to provide a plausible model of liberating insight as an intrinsic aspect of a jhāna state, I will also refer to some important new developments from the field of cognitive sciences, which provide a new way of explaining how human cognition works. In order to show that my model is possible on a practical level, I will also point out some meditative developments from the later history of Buddhism, where insight was seen in a way somewhat similar to what I am proposing.

I like the cut of this professor’s jib. :slight_smile: I’ll try to download and read the entire article this weekend.


Hi Deeele,

The answer to this can be found on page 49.

This passage makes it very clear that in the state of the fourth jhāna, the senses of the meditator are not coming to a halt.

On the contrary, they are functioning in a smooth, continuous way, because their activity is not disrupted by the arising of lust or aversion directed towards their objects.

It is also worth noting that the Mahātanhāsankhaya Sutta describes in slightly different words the same state, which is depicted in the Indriyabhāvanā Sutta.

The Mahātanhāsankhaya Sutta describes it as not lusting/disliking after pleasing/displeasing sense objects, while according to the Indriyabhāvanā Sutta one can remain mindful, alert and equanimous, when faced with objects that are agreeable/disagreeable.

The passage of the MN38 he is referring to is found at the very end of the sutta:

“Having thus abandoned these five hindrances, imperfections of the mind that weaken wisdom, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, he enters upon and abides in the first jhāna…
With the stilling of applied and sustained thought, he enters upon and abides in the second jhāna…
With the fading away as well of rapture…he enters upon and abides in the third jhāna…
With the abandoning of pleasure and pain…he enters upon and abides in the fourth jhāna…which has neither-pain-nor-pleasure and purity of mindfulness due to equanimity.

“On seeing a form with the eye, he does not lust after it if it is pleasing; he does not dislike it if it is unpleasing.
He abides with mindfulness of the body established, with an immeasurable mind, and he understands as it actually is the deliverance of mind and deliverance by wisdom wherein those evil unwholesome states cease without remainder.

If I understood well, Polak is calling attention to the immediate link between the attainment / abiding of the fourth jhana and the perfect equipoise / equanimity towards what is seen with the eye and the mindfulness of the body.

This indicates that the fourth jhana framed in MN38 is not leading to the cessation of vedana but indeed allowing for a transformation in the way vedana is apprehended:

“Having thus abandoned favouring and opposing, whatever feeling he feels, whether pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant, he does not delight in that feeling, welcome it, or remain holding to it.
As he does not do so, delight in feelings ceases in him. With the cessation of his delight comes cessation of clinging; with the cessation of clinging, cessation of being; with the cessation of being, cessation of birth; with the cessation of birth, ageing and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair cease.
Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering.”


To me, the bit after the jhanas at end of MN 38 and AN 11.9 seem to describe the mind / special meditative state of an Arahant, not the fourth jhana.

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There are some texts by Grzegorz Polak available online, although unfortunately they’re only in Polish here:


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Polak seems stuck on the ending of MN 38, which is primarily practice according to the Noble Truths & Dependent Origination. However, in my opinion, such practice will not generate very strong insight into the Three Characteristics & Emptiness (Sunnata). To thoroughly see the five aggregates (breath/body, feelings, citta & consciousness) are impermanent, unsatisfactory, not-self & mere elements (dhatu) void of self (sunnata), I think an ‘inward samadhi & jhanic depth’ of meditation (that Polak seems to be de-emphasising) is required. For example, practitioners commonly report their first experience of ‘emptiness’ or ‘egolessness’ occurs with samadhi development (where the sense of self dissolves in samadhi). The ending of MN 38 occurs after the jhanas have been developed, which result in a very clear mind that can be used to end Dependent Origination when the sense organs are actually functioning (out of jhana).

The passage probably is describing the emergence from jhana & the use/directing of the concentration/clarity/equanimity developed from jhana.

Maybe Polak should have distinguished formal meditation from everyday life. In formal meditation, the mind can incline naturally into jhana due to the tranquilization of breathing, body & thinking. Where as in everyday life, such as when walking, talking, eating, working, etc, the mind will not be in jhana but can still have the minfulness & wisdom at sense contact as described at the end of MN 38. In other words, when the five sense organs are operating, even the arahant will have pleasant & unpleasant feelings (which end in the 4th jhana) as described in Iti 44. As for the 6th sense base at the end of MN 38, jhana is also a sense object of this 6th sense base.

Often errors seem to be made in trying to rectify errors. I would speculate Nāgārjuna was attempting to address what he regarded as errors in the Buddhism of his day which resulted in his still adhering to the very (erroneous) definitions he was attempting to rectify, such as ‘samsara’ & ‘nirvana’. Recently, I read Thich Nhat Hanh claim ‘dukkha’ was not a (Mahayana) Dhamma Seal. Such an error would result from adhering to an error in translation, namely, ‘suffering’ (rather than a more logical ‘unsatisfactory’). Similarly, just because the Visuddhimagga yogic methods commonly taught to achieve jhana may seem to not accord with the suttas does not make jhana itself an error. If the jhana born from seclusion (viveka) was an error, the Four Noble Truths & Noble Eightfold Path would be an error.

Regards :maple_leaf:


I’ve got mixed feelings about the book. We have a scholar dealing with early budhism: yippie!
But why continue/cause conceptual confusion?

  • on p.11 he writes “the four jhānas are supposed to be a yogic type of meditation” and thus introduces a new confusing term. what is “yogic meditation” supposed to mean? the meditations of samkhya and patanjali’s ashtanga yoga have emerged as text-based practices only long after the buddha. If anything we could say that ‘yogic meditation is a buddhist type of meditation’

  • p.19: “According to a view held by all the Buddhists, ignorance is eradicated by the development of understanding.” It’s a minor philosophical point, but I at least can’t see it that way. Ignorance creates duality and an agent, and likewise understanding creates duality and an agent. So liberation has to transcend both.

  • on p.20 he uses arupajhana even though this is a commentarial term

  • p.20: “The meditation object should be as simple and uncomplicated as possible, since this greatly facilitates reaching higher stages of concentration.” Sorry, but this is an unfounded assumption, even if it sounds logical. In fact I can argue that even though the dhamma is inself consistent, its friction with the ‘normal’ mind creates a lot of friction and complications. Maybe for the arahant meditation is simple, but for the unenlightened mind it’s a constant puzzle how to fully calm the mind with something like the 32 parts of the body.

Is he purposefully using assumptions he think are popular and that he wants to refute later on? Then it’s at least not clear. To me it sounds like he thinks these are seriously the so far established views. It would have been much clearer if from the outset he made clear what wrong conceptions are…

Can someone tell me if and where it get’s more accurate? From the introduction at least I unfortunately don’t feel motivated to do the work and go through the whole book - but maybe selected chapters are worth it?

For me, ‘yogic meditation’ is acts of deliberately applying mind to body, similar to using a hammer to hit a nail. Therefore, the techniques from Visuddhimagga, Goenka, Mahasi, etc, such as counting, following, guarding, body scanning, watching rise & fall at abdomen, etc, are ‘yogic meditation’.

This is distinct from making ‘letting go’ (vossagga), abandonment or surrender the object. If MN 117, MN 118, SN 48.9, etc, are carefully read, they mention the quality of mindfulness, concentration, etc, includes ‘vossagga’ (‘giving up’), which is the right view of abandonment of craving.


Grzegorz’s book intends to demonstrate by careful analysis of the suttas and the visudhimagga that the type of Jhanas that the Buddha had discovered and promoted as the eight component of the eightfold path, have been lost by all traditions and in particular the Theravadins who follow the visudhimagga.
Two main corruptions of the Buddha Jhana teaching have occurred very quickly after his passing away:

  • his Jhanas have become “yogic” with the introduction of Ekagatta as a component that is not in the suttas;
  • the four attainments (that come from the Bhramanic traditions) were introduced in some suttas (mainly the MN) and became the higher Jhanas (thus the concepts of rupas and arupas) without any explanation about their possible role in liberation from Dukkha.
    As result of these corruptions and having lost the understanding of the Buddha Jhanas (what they are, how to get there, what are they for, etc.), more development occurred over the centuries including the separation of vipassana from jhana (vipassana rarely occurs in the suttas and is always associated with jhana). As result of this separation we now have a “modern” tradition that makes vipassana meditation the way to liberation, bypassing jhanas.

With all this most “buddhists” in the world have completely lost the Buddha’s teaching on Bhavana and liberation.

Grzegorz aims at rediscovering what the Buddha Jhanas are all about and in particular that “Jhanas are endowed with Insight” which means that there is no need “to do” vipassana as a separate type of meditation.


I would recommend checking the conclusion chapter, “Perspectives”. Lots of food for thought there.

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This is a DhammaWheel thread in which Polak’s work is criticized by a fluent Pali linguist (~3 posts by Sylvester).


[quote=“alaber, post:15, topic:3262”]
Two main corruptions of the Buddha Jhana teaching have occurred very quickly after his passing away: - his Jhanas have become “yogic” with the introduction of Ekagatta as a component that is not in the suttas[/quote]
Ekagatta’ is a factor of every jhana in (basically) every sutta.

Āraddhaṃ kho pana me bhikkhave viriyaṃ ahosi asallīnaṃ. Upaṭṭhitā sati asammuṭṭhā. Passaddho kāyo asāraddho. Samāhitaṃ cittaṃ ekaggaṃ

Unflagging persistence was aroused in me, and unmuddled mindfulness established. My body was calm & unaroused, my mind concentrated & single. Quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful mental qualities, I entered & remained in the first jhana… MN 19


Arupa jhana appear to have no role in liberation (since the 4th jhana appears to be sufficient for final vipassana) however arupa jhana are obviously a natural development of jhana unless arrested, as indicated below:

One discerns that 'If I were to direct equanimity as pure & bright as this towards the dimension of the infinitude of space and to develop the mind along those lines, that would be fabricated (saṅkhatametaṃ). One discerns that ‘If I were to direct equanimity as pure and bright as this towards the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness… the dimension of nothingness… the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception and to develop the mind along those lines, that would be fabricated.’ One neither fabricates nor mentally fashions for the sake of becoming or un-becoming. This being the case, one is not sustained by anything in the world (does not cling to anything in the world). Unsustained, one is not agitated. Unagitated, one is totally unbound right within. One discerns that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.’ MN 140


When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady & attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of the ending of the mental fermentations… MN 19


Are there suttas that support this idea? I trust there may be a certain degree of insight in the jhanas however not complete insight that results in dispassion & the ending of the asava, as described in AN 4.41.

There certainly appear to be generalisations in respect to Pali terms, including in this excerpt:

According to the other concept of insight formulated in some suttas, the meditator can suddenly stop his practice of samatha meditation in one of the jhānas (including the higher ones) and while being in this very state start the practice of insight which makes this state of jhāna and its imperfection the object of insight. This view is of course nonsensical. When one is absorbed in jhāna, his intentions are gone. MN 78 states that the evil intentions are gone in the first jhāna and the good ones are gone in the second jhāna. It is not even possible to think about starting a different practice, while being in jhāna. (Polak)

‘Vitakka’ & ‘vicara’ are obviously not intention (‘cetana’) thus probably should not be used synonymously:

Furthermore, with the fading of rapture, Sariputta — remaining in equanimity, mindful & alert, and physically sensitive to pleasure — entered & remained in the third jhana, of which the noble ones declare, ‘Equanimous & mindful, he has a pleasant abiding.’ Whatever qualities there are in the third jhana — equanimity-pleasure, singleness of mind, contact, feeling, perception, intention (cetanā), consciousness, desire, decision, persistence, mindfulness, equanimity & attention — he ferreted them out one after another. MN 111

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Please do a comparative search of piti and ekagatta in all collections of suttas and you may find that ekagatta is in some MN (although not consistently) but not in the core teachings of the SN (Maha Vagga) the “root” collection of suttas.


Grzegorz idea is that you practice the Buddha Jhanas (for example using Anapanasati with the body being the physical body not the breath-body) and as result of this practice you may get insight at some stage either within Jhana or after Jhana. True insights happen automatically they are not “practiced”. They are called Eureka or Ah-Ah moments. Ask a scientist. They have their deeper insights when they are not thinking (e.g. in a bathtub, when waking up, etc.) about the problem they are trying to resolve.


This extract out-of-context is misleading. Here Grzegorz is presenting the traditional (i.e. visudhimagga) Theravada point-of-view about Jhana. He later on dismisses this point-of-view.