Polak's Reexamining Jhanas

Hi everyone, just another reminder to try to keep within the topic’s subject.

Although all this is very valuable it ends up scattering the point of the conversation and turn it into a public dialogue / debate over a parallel topic.

@Deeele and @Sylvester, I strongly suggest you consider opening a new topic to invite others to investigate this interesting issue with the Pali words for causality you have been discussing over the last 2- 3 days! :slight_smile:


An interesting sub-chapter of Polak’s book is around the quest for the original “boddhisatta sutta”.

Suggesting that MN85 should be taken the most authentic account - in opposition to the more famous MN26 - he notes:

In the Bodhirājakumāra Sutta, the bodhisatta found out that crushing and constraining the mind, as well as the breathless meditation are useless when it comes to providing knowledge and vision.
According to the reaction of the devas, he was also resembling a dead person when he was practicing the breathless meditation.
All these rejected forms of meditation, possess features that are surprisingly similar to those of saññāvedayitanirodha.

It seems likely that someone who believed that saññāvedayitanirodha is the ultimate goal of meditation, was not happy with the account of the strivings. It is therefore no wonder that the compiler of the Ariyapariyesana Sutta took out the episode of strivings, and has replaced it by another, simpler account. He had very good reasons to do it.

Interestingly, as he points later on in his book, the MN85 depicts as well a much less fantastic account of the boddhisatta’s youth:

(…) the Bodhirājakumāra Sutta contains only the formula of going forth, without giving any motivation for such a decision. (…) it seems possible that originally there was no account of bodhisatta’s motivation. The later compilers of the Ariyapariyesana Sutta, the Mahāsaccaka Sutta, and the Sangārava Sutta have probably added their own accounts of bodhisatta’s motivation to renounce household life to enrich the narrative.

Last but not least, it is very interesting as well what triggered the Buddha to tell the prince of his breakthrough.

When the Blessed One had finished the meal and had put away the bowl, prince Bodhiraja took a low seat, sat on a side, and said thus. ‘Venerable sir, it occurs to me that pleasantness could not be attained by pleasantness, it has to be attained, with unpleasantness.’

Royal prince, before my enlightenment, when I was a seeker of enlightenment, it occurred to me, with pleasantness, pleasantness could not be attained, with unpleasantness, pleasantness could be attained.
There should be some other method for the realisation of enlightenment. Then royal prince, I recalled the experience under the shade of the rose apple tree near my father’s field: Secluded from sensual thoughts and secluded from thoughts of demerit, with thoughts and discursive thoughts and with joy and pleasantness born of seclusion, how I attained to abode in the first jhana.
Then consciousness arose this is the path to enlightenment. I thought, why should I fear this pleasantness, which is other than sensual pleasure and away from thoughts of demerit.

The prince was probably a Jain and the Buddha takes the opportunity to make clear that the path he points is pleasant and liberating!

In a nutshell, the points made around the MN85 are:

  1. the Buddha possibly didn’t have much of a big background story for his spiritual pursuit
  2. most likely he ruled out deeper meditative practices such as breathless still before his enlightenment, at the same time he ruled out the Jain-like path of pain and extreme starvation.
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What are these similar features? I don’t get the connection Polak is trying to make here.

The way I read it within the book’s chapter from which I got that quote is that Polak is at that stage linking the exertion-based /perception cessation-leading meditation practices discarded by the bodhisatta with the cessation marked states (usually listed beyond the 4th jhana).

Such cessation-based attainments he hypothesises have been inserted in the Suttas as a result of the yogic influences that possibly “creeped” in as the possible early and original meditative tradition was lost.

He then brings the troublesome meditative instructions preserved in the Visudhimagga, identifies in it a possible illegitimate focus to these very same cessation-based attainments and somehow concludes it is indeed the evidence of how after having lost the original meditative tradition those who wrote it could only resort to the yogic influenced system / didactics they had still in vogue around them.

Now, before a debate is started note that no one is here blindly taking Polak’s hypothesis as true. The intention is to identify issues with his thesis and hopefully aggregate constructive questions we could try to bring to Polak himself.

By this way we could maybe start an interesting and valuable interaction with a contemporary scholar as much interested in peeling away from two millennia of oral and written tradition a hint of the practical contours and landmarks of path reopened by the Blessed One.

Well, I’m still at the point to ask: does he come to these theses by intuition or does he have a solid basis for it? I started reading and then was discouraged by what I saw as ‘sloppy theories’ if you forgive the expression. If he follows his intuition stating that the nikayas themselves came under ‘yogic influence’ then I at least am not interested because many people have many ideas and if it comes to intuition i rather trust my beloved meditation masters. if he however has solid textual bases please point me to the chapter/page. thanks!


Hi gnlaera, this is an interesting topic:

Clearly jhana is an area of significant disagreement. I tried to explore this issue on another thread:

The point there was that a number of EBT scholars do not equate deep jhana with yogic influence and would, I think, disagree with this statement:

[quote=“gnlaera, post:69, topic:3262”]
Polak is at that stage linking the exertion-based meditation practices discarded by the bodhisatta with the cessation marked states (usually listed beyond the 4th jhana)…Such cessation-based attainments he hypothesises have been inserted in the Suttas as a result of the yogic influences that possibly “creeped” in as the possible early and original meditative tradition was lost.[/quote]
I just don’t see the correlation since the immaterial jhanas would have no relationship to the practises of self-torment. The immaterial jhanas would simply be a natural further development to the material jhanas.

Now, as I see it, the uniqueness of the Buddha’s search is he saw very early on the limitations of the immaterial jhanas and, somewhere in his search, successfully focused on non-attachment & non-craving (rather than the non-thinking of jhana). Therefore, jhana became a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

That said, if what appears to be the deliberate departure from the 4th jhana for wisdom development did not occur, this would not stop the natural fruition of samadhi towards the immaterial jhanas & nirodha-sampatti.

This would be why, without a Buddha’s instructions, most contemplatives that abandoned the world & entered into meditation would get stuck in states of samadhi (non-thinking).

If we read Hindu Yoga, generally the final goal is complete dissolution of thinking, which is immaterial jhana.

We can see the further Buddhism moved away from India, how many of the Zen & Mahayana schools seem to emphasise non-thinking as enlightenment, which sounds like more immaterial jhana. This is a natural tendency rather than a deliberate self-mortification practise.

That Buddha did not get stuck in states of non-thinking (jhana) in his search is what made him unique. :deciduous_tree:

Probably referring to the Bodhisatta learning meditation (specifically the formless abidings/liberations) from Uddaka Rāmaputta and Ālāra Kālāma (many believe them to have been Upaniṣadic Yogis). Self-torment would have been part of the Jain system, and possibly another very old form of yoga centered around tapas — the ascetics of such a tradition could provisionally be called tapasyins. Yoga is a word like dhamma/dharma, taking up several pages in the sanskrit dictionaries and having many many different meanings.

Two relevant suttas that spring to mind are AN 9.34 and AN 9.42.

Both these describe the all the jhanas in a logical sequence: the first jhana teaches you that sensuality is suffering, and then second jhana and above teaches you that the previous jhana is suffering.

Just as pain arises as an affliction in a healthy person for his affliction, even so the attention to perceptions dealing with [the previous jhana] that beset the monk is an affliction for him.

Both sequences ultimately end with the cessation of perception and feeling, which has the consequence:

And, having seen [that] with discernment, his mental fermentations are completely ended.

This makes sense to me; there’s no level of consciousness that isn’t suffering compared to extinguishment (nibbana). Going through all the jhanas to cessation just spells that out for you crystal clear :slight_smile:


Thanks Erik. These might possibly be very relevant suttas for this thread.

I have never read those suttas before & the impression is these might possibly be the kinds of suttas that support Polak’s position because these suttas may appear alien to the primary Buddhist view about Nibbana, which defines Nibbana-with-residue (Iti 44) as the end of craving (SN 56.11) rather than the end of feeling sensation (vedana).

For me, the 3rd noble truth (about the cessation of craving) is crystal clear rather than AN 9.34 (which may sound like it is about the cessation of feeling sensations). This is because AN 9.34 might appear to be unacheivable on a permanent basis because life cannot be lived in Nirodha-Sampatti.

The thing about the jhanas is, if they were “suffering”, why do the suttas report the Buddha zoomed in & out of the various jhana, before passing away emerging from the 4th jhana? Why did not the Buddha pass away in Nirodha-Sampatti?

That above said, my impression is AN 9.34 is not as I described above nor as you interpreted it because the translation I am reading states: “he feels it as an affliction” rather than “it is an affliction”.

I would suggest the translation of “suffering” is questionable here. ‘Dukkha’ here probably could be better rendered as “unsatisfactory” rather than as “suffering”.

What appears to be described in AN 9.34 is the natural process of seeing unattractiveness or unsatisfactoriness in more coarse phenomena. For example, often beginner meditators start feeling long periods of calmness from watching breathing and then, unexpectedly, the mind breaks out in rapture and the meditators actually find the rapture disturbing & unattractive because it has an agitating quality compared to the prior tranquility.

In conclusion, to me, AN 9.34 is not comparing Nibbana to consciousness (vinnana), as you suggested, but comparing Nibbana various feeling sensations (vedana).

Please note: many suttas (eg. Ud 8.1) appear to state Nibbana-with-residue (Iti 44) is also a sense object (‘ayatana’) of consciousness.

For me, vedana (feelings) are not “suffering” because arahants experience vedana (feelings at sense contact; refer to Iti 44, MN 37 or the ending of MN 38). Instead, vedana are “unsatisfactory” as described in the 2nd sermon on the Three Characteristics, for which many translators use the term “unsatisfactory” rather than “suffering”. “Unsatisfactory” means they cannot be relied on to bring true happiness.

For me, AN 9.34 is a coarse (unrefined) sutta because I think the more lucid & authentic practitioner tastes Nibbana in experiencing non-attachment (viraga) rather than in experiencing more subtle feeling sensations (vedana).

I think the best Nibbana is not being attached to our personal interpretations of the suttas. :slight_smile:


I don’t think these suttas support Polak’s position. The way I see it, Nibbana-with-residue is simply the living arahant; a mind without craving (or taints, depending on what angle you look at it from).

Nibbana without residue is the arahant who has died. The cessation of feeling and perception - as far as I can tell - what Nibbana without residue “feels like”.

Which takes us back to start of AN 9.34; “But what is the pleasure here, my friend, where there is nothing felt?”

Ven. Udayin is asking how it is that nibbana without remainder is pleasant, how does that makes sense when you’re not actually there to feel anything?

Logically, the only way “feeling nothing” can be pleasant is if any kind of experience is ultimately suffering - which is what the first noble truth says: the five aggregates are suffering.

My take on it anyway :slight_smile:


MN 43 compares nirodha-sampatti to death.

It sounds like nothing is known/experienced in Nirodha Sampatti so how can Nibbana be compared to it? To me, it sounds like last paragraph of the sutta might refer to the experience of “taints utterly destroyed” as Nibbana rather than Nirodha Sampatti.

The first noble truth includes the word ‘upadana’ (‘grasping’) in it. At least SN 22.1 does not appear to regard the aggregates themselves as suffering. Also, SN 22.48 mentions two types of five aggregates, for which only the 2nd type is in the 1st noble truth as “suffering”. (The 1st type of aggregates are in the 2nd sermon for some translators as “unsatisfactory”.)

Good night from here. :koala:

Can you explain your thought process here? :slight_smile:

From SN 22.82:

[Regarding the five aggregates subject to clinging]

“Venerable sir, is that clinging the same as these five aggregates subject to clinging, or is the clinging something apart from the five aggregates subject to clinging?”

“Bhikkhus, that clinging is neither the same as these five aggregates subject to clinging, nor is the clinging something apart from the five aggregates subject to clinging. But rather, the desire and lust for them, that is the clinging there.”

So, the grasping or clinging part of the aggregates is the lust and desire for them. Why would anyone not have lust and desire for the five aggregates? Because they’re suffering.

If there were aggregates that weren’t suffering, then it would make sense to desire and lust after them; that’s the delusion behind craving, that there is something in this samsara that isn’t suffering. Why else would we stay here? :slight_smile:


Dear @Deeele and @Sylvester, your posts concerning hetu have been moved to a separate topic in order to maintain the organization of this (very long) thread:


Thanks Brenna.

Might I trouble you to change the title to Examining Hetu and Paccaya in Relation to Paṭiccasamuppāda. Jhana has no bearing on that discussion.



I’ll trawl through his book (gathering dust) but start with his critique based on MN 38 for a start.

The passage he’s relying on is -

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. (ditto for the other 5 senses).

On the basis of this passage, he asserts that the verbs of seeing, hearing etc are contemporaneous with the jhanas.

And this is a prime example of those commentators who actually dive into a subject without any understanding of the grammar of the primary material. What value is there in an English translation, when the Pali material has a specific meaning that cannot be conveyed in English? I think K R Norman was correct to bemoan the existence of these “commentators” who are desperate to make something of academia, but without the requisite qualification.

What’s wrong with Polak’s analysis here? For this, we need to look at the Pali of the above passage -

Sukhassa ca pahānā dukkhassa ca pahānā, pubbeva somanas­sa­do­manas­sā­naṃ atthaṅgamā aduk­kha­ma­su­khaṃ upekkhā­sati­pāri­suddhiṃ catutthaṃ jhānaṃ upasampajja viharati.
> So cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā piyarūpe rūpe na sārajjati, appiyarūpe rūpe na byāpajjati, upaṭṭhi­ta­kāyasati ca viharati appamāṇacetaso. Tañca cetovimuttiṃ paññāvimuttiṃ yathābhūtaṃ pajānāti—yatthassa te pāpakā akusalā dhammā aparisesā nirujjhanti.

What I have bolded in the first sentence is to indicate periphrasis, where the auxillary verb viharati (dwells) is showing the durative aspect of the main verb upasampajja (having entered). In Pali, the durative periphrasis such as the above does not spill over into subsequent propositions, as viharati can only be auxillary to one verb alone.

If the Buddha had intended to indicate something else has intruded or participated in the periphrasis, the redactors had a very common idiom to express this, ie what Wijesekara calls the Instrumental of Time (bolded below) -

Vivicceva kāmehi vivicca akusalehi dhammehi savitakkaṃ savicāraṃ vivekajaṃ pītisukhaṃ paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ upasampajja viharāmi. Tassa mayhaṃ, ānanda, iminā vihārena viharato kāmasahagatā sañ­ñāmana­sikārā samudācaranti.

Then, quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful qualities, I entered & remained in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation.
“As I remained there, I was beset with attention to perceptions dealing with sensuality.

AN 9.41

If Polak had been careful enough, he would have realised that this type of periphrasis cannot accommodate 2 actions concurrent with the auxillary verb viharati. Eg -

Puna caparaṃ, bhikkhave, sāriputto sabbaso neva­saññā­nā­sañ­ñāyata­naṃ samatikkamma saññā­ve­dayi­ta­nirodhaṃ upasampajja viharati. Paññāya cassa disvā āsavā parikkhīṇā honti.

MN 111

How can insight occur in an attainment bereft of perception?

Hi @Gabriel_L , might it be possible for you to indicate the page numbers for each of the propositions outlined in your first post? It will help me track down the propositions without having to trawl through everything.


I took it mostly from the Introduction chapter’s outline of the book’s message.

I think key sub-chapters for you to look at would be 1.2.2, 1.2.4 and 1.3.

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Thanks for that. Furthermore, the conclusion that the passage is after jhana seems quite clear, even without invoking Pali analysis, if the whole sutta where the passage comes from is examined: https://suttacentral.net/en/mn38/83

The jhana passage is the culmination of the gradual training (which presumably takes a while), and the

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

passage is his state after the training, which is in contrast to how he regarded objects before that training.

“On seeing a form with the eye, he lusts after it if it is pleasing; he dislikes it if it is unpleasing.


Moving on now to AN 11.9, which he treats as sharing the same theme as AN 11.10. In the former, what is impugned is the “perception of X with reference to X” (eg āpasmiṃ āposaññā), while the latter puts forth the injunction to “not attend to X” (na X manasi kareyya). Their equivalence looks about right. Polak then draws the conclusion “… achieving jhana with the support of the abovementioned qualities can also be seen as perceiving them, or directing the attention of one’s mind to them.”

Despite the use of saññā, I would suggest that saññā here does not bear its normal meaning of “perception”. Another sutta which runs through a similar (if more complete) list of dhammas than these AN 11 series would be MN 1, where the perception verb sañjānāti is used. I have argued against interpreting sañjānāti and saññā in MN 1 and MN 18 to have anything to do with the aggregate of perception. These usages point to “conceiving”, rather than “perceiving”. Some previous thoughts -


Bringing this to the Sandha Sutta, we can see that “perception” therein probably means -

for an excellent thoroughbred of a man the conceiving of earth with regard to earth has ceased to exist

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Another point from Polak (also popular among the rest of the banana-jhana camp) that needs to be put to bed once and for all, concerns the reading of junction of the 4th jhana pericope with the supernormal powers pericope.

In s.1.2.1, he discusses MN 36 and MN 85. At p.45, he makes this startling proposition -

In a heightened state of the fourth jhana, he was able to destroy the three asavas, and thus he gained the ultimate awakening and became a Buddha.

Doubtless, he is referring to this passage -

I entered upon and abided in the fourth jhāna…But such pleasant feeling that arose in me did not invade my mind and remain.

“When my concentrated mind was thus purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability,
I directed it to knowledge of the recollection of past lives…
When my concentrated mind was thus purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to knowledge of the destruction of the taints.

While the translation into English is serviceable, what the Pali says in the final para above is much more precise -

So evaṃ samāhite citte parisuddhe pariyodāte anaṅgaṇe viga­tū­pak­kilese mudubhūte kammaniye ṭhite āneñjappatte āsavānaṃ khayañāṇāya cittaṃ abhininnāmesiṃ.

The italicised text is the main clause is describing the directing of the mind, while the bolded part is the subordinate clause describing the context.

Never mind my earlier observations about the periphrasis in the jhana pericopes that is invisible to readers unfamiliar with Pali. What I would like to point out here is that the subordinate clause is actually something known as a “locative absolute”, ie the substantive noun citta and all of the attendant participles samāhita, parisuddha etc are inflected in the locative case. But what sort of participles are these? They are all past participles, not present participles.

And this is where Polak slips up big time. Relying on a serviceable English translation, he asserts that the 3 superknowledges occur in the 4th jhana. Had he been familiar with Pali grammar, he would have realised that when the subordinate clause is a locative absolute consisting of past participles, the action in the subordinate clause takes place BEFORE the action in the main clause : Wijeysekara, s.183b.

I know Bhante Sujato dislikes Buddhist Hybrid English, but in this case, a precise rendering of the passage would have been more useful -

After my mind had been thus concentrated, purified, made pure, made unblemished, rid of imperfection, made malleable, made wieldy, made steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to knowledge of the destruction of the taints.

This is confirmed by AN 9.35 (but pls, not in Ven Thanissaro’s translation!) where the supernormal powers are exercised upon emerging from this or that attainment.

I’m definitely not sending my babies to the Marie Curie University, seeing how his PhD supervisors could have been so sloppy…