Polak's Reexamining Jhanas

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…


Polak isn’t following his intuition; he’s building upon older scholarship by Vetter, Bronkhorst and Gombrich, among others. The idea is that the suttas contain discrepancies, such as different ideas on the relation between rupa jhanas, arupa jhanas, and liberating insight.

At some places, the rupa jhanas result in liberation; at other places, the arupa jhanas; and at still other places, liberating insight is needed. The arupa jhanas resemble Vedic/Upanishadic practices, which aim at completely stilling the mind. The rupa jhanas, in contrast, do not aim at completely stilling the mind, but at heightening awareness, and of limiting the reactivity of the mind.

The problematic relation between jhana and insight has been noted as early as 1937, by La Vallee * Possin (1937), “Musila et Narada.” I already gave a reading list above; here’s a longer list:

  • La Vallee Possin (1937), Musila et Narada; reprinted in Gombrich (2006), How Buddhism Began, appendix
  • Erich Frauwallner (1953), Geschichte der indischen Philosophie, Band Der Buddha und der Jina (pp. 147-272)
  • Andre Bareau (1963), Recherches sur la biographiedu Buddha dans les Sutrapitaka et les Vinayapitaka anciens, Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient
  • Schmithausen, On some Aspects of Descriptions or Theories of ‘Liberating Insight’ and ‘Enlightenment’ in Early Buddhism. In: Studien zum Jainismus und Buddhismus (Gedenkschrift für Ludwig Alsdorf), hrsg. von Klaus Bruhn und Albrecht Wezler, Wiesbaden 1981, 199-250.
  • Griffiths, Paul (1981), “Concentration or Insight; The Problematic of Theravada Buddhist Meditation-theory”, The Journal of the American Academy of Religion
  • K.R. Norman, Four Noble Truths
  • Bronkhorst, Johannes (1993) [1986], The Two Traditions Of Meditation In Ancient India, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, chapter 8
  • Tilman Vetter (1988), The Ideas and Meditative Practices of Early Buddhism, by Tilmann Vetter
  • Richard F. Gombrich (2006) [1996]. How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings . Routledge. ISBN 978-1-134-19639-5., chapter four
  • Anderson, Carol (1999), Pain and Its Ending: The Four Noble Truths in the Theravada Buddhist Canon, Routledge
  • Alexander Wynne (2007), The Origin of Buddhist Meditation, Routledge

Schmithausen’s essay is an absolute classic, but hard to find; Vetter, Bronkhorst and Gombrich can be found at the internet as pdf’s. Highly recommended reading!


Why raise this point of view when the following two phrases are quite similar, the only difference being an arahant having an ‘enlightened perception’?

Here, bhikkhus, an untaught ordinary person…perceives earth as earth. Having perceived earth as earth, he conceives himself as earth, he conceives himself in earth,

Bhikkhus, a bhikkhu who is an arahant…completely liberated through final knowledge, he too directly knows earth as earth. Having directly known earth as earth, he does not conceive himself as earth

Surely, the whole message of these passages is for the abandoning of the ‘self-conceit’ rather than for the abandoning of perception.

Hi Deeele

Did you read my post carefully about MN 1? This was what I said in the post I linked to -

In fact, the EA parallel to MN 1 uses a completely different verb for the same passage above. It says 彼觀, where MN 1 has sañjānāti, and 觀 where the Pali has abhijānāti (directly knows). Apparently, 彼觀 is paṭisaṅkhā (the absolutive “reflecting/considering”) or the present indicative paṭisankhāti. These are not perception simpliciter, but look like more complex and ruminative forms of interpretation, much like the sañjānāti in MN 139.

Hmm, I wonder why you’ve now deleted your post?

Thank you Sylvester. I deleted my post because I wanted to read more. I did not realise you were online. My apologies.

My initial view of AN 11.9 (reading it now for the 1st time ) is the term ‘perception’ remains valid and that the sutta is emphasising the thoroughbred does not meditate dependent on any kind of ‘yogic practise’ (per Polak’s general thesis) but meditates dependent on ‘non-attachment’ (which is similar to SN 48.10, which appears to state for reaching jhana the noble disciple makes ‘vossagga’ the meditation object; and MN 118, which describes a mindfulness with the quality of ‘vossagga’).

Whilst the thoroughbred may at times perceive ‘earth’ in ordinary activities, in meditation, the primary perception, I guess, would be impermanence, emptiness, non-attachment, Nibbana, etc.

As for the EA parallel to MN 1, I personally find the Pali MN 1 suitable for my needs thus have no issues with it since I interpret abandoning the self-conceit (in relation to any perception) as the core message of the Buddhas.

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Thanks for this Sylvester. Your points and analysis of the Pali are very helpful and informative. I truly appreciate it. :slight_smile:

Now, as a matter of feedback, I would like to suggest we avoid polarizing the conversation with dispensable labels like “banana-jhana camp”.

The reason for that is that it would be great to later on write to Polak himself and suggest he give a look to all this valuable feedback and constructive criticism we have been trying to gather through this topic.

I am sure that reading/hearing someone calling you a “banana” / or your work “sloppy” would make you less receptive of his/her still valuable opinion or contribution to your work. :confused:


Ah, that’s my clinging to bear, if I cannot bear being called a banana (which I’ve been accused of with justification).

Sorry, I don’t understand what you mean here. :confused:

I’m a VERY westernised Chinese, ie yellow on the outside and white on the inside. Thus the banana appellation.

You’ll have to take up with reservations about the “banana jhana” label with its originator. He’s here…:smile_cat:

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Moving on now to his analysis of MN 152 and how the Buddha’s scorn for Parasariya’s method is proof that the jhanas are not bereft of sense data. But first, I should correct his mistake in citing BB’s translation of MN 51 at p.48. BB did not translate “sukhañca kāyena paṭisaṃvedeti” as “still feeling pleasure in the body”, but as “still feeling pleasure with the body”. As to the meaning carried by the idiom kāyena, see the old discussions at Touching enlightenment with the body.

Firstly, he makes the equation of the arahant’s development of the faculties (3rd part of MN 152) with the 3rd Jhana on the basis that the arahant’s development of the faculties is said to have equanimity, mindfulness and full awareness in common with the 3rd jhana pericope. What he overlooked to mention is that the arahant’s development in MN 152 omits to mention pleasure, which is one of the defining features of the 3rd jhana. If we take his argument to its logical conclusion, it would appear that the 3rd jhana would only be accessible to arahants, since the other 2 types of development of the faculties do not share all of the features of the 3rd jhana.

Secondly, I say he (and Bronkhorst) is mistaken in interpreting the Buddha’s scorn for Parasariya as proof that the Buddha did not teach that the jhanas are empty of 5 sense content. The latter’s method involves sense-avoidance, whereas the Buddha’s method was that of sense restraint to give up liking and disliking (see the Comy explanation of the 1st part of MN 152’s development of the faculties). Sense avoidance does not develop skills in handling the reactions engendered by the anusayas anusenti-ing. That, IMO, is the message of MN 152, a view echoed by Ven Analayo at footnote 145, Vol II of his MN Comparative Study.

Ven Analayo cites Ven Pasadika’s critique of Bronkhorst’s argument. That is in “Buddhist and Pali Studies in Honour of the Venerable Professor Kakkapalliye Anuruddha”. Might anyone have a copy of that?


Coming back to Polak’s analysis of the Sandha Sutta (AN 11.9 - {AN 11.10 in his book}). He rightly points out that 2 types of meditation are contrasted, one to be pursued, and the other not to be pursued. This is preceded by the simile of the 2 types of horses.

Firstly, he is wrong to say that this sutta is concerned with jhana. Jhana is not mentioned at all in the sutta, and it would in fact be very suspicious that the term jhana were applied to the formless attainment in an early strata of the texts. What is used is the verb jhāyati , which simply means “meditates”.

As the simile of the horse shows, the wrong type of meditation is accompanied by the 5 Hindrances, ie craving, while the right type is free of the Hindrances. This then leads to the part that Polak relies upon -

He is absorbed dependent neither on earth, liquid, fire, wind, the sphere of …
per Ven Thanissaro

This is not quite correct. There is no “absorbed” there, or as Polak reads “literally attain jhana”. What it says is in the section on wrong meditation is -

So pathavimpi nissāya jhāyati, āpampi nissāya jhāyati,…

It simply reads - " he meditates dependant on earth etc etc". As mentioned earlier, if this passage is describing the meditator having attained a jhana, that does not fit in with the EBT paradigm of not describing the formless attainments as jhanas.

The presence of nissāya in the wrong meditation leads Polak to then surmise that in a right jhana, there is no relying on meditation objects eg earth, water etc.

If Polak had carried out a larger survey of how nissāya is used, he might have observed the following -

MN 22 - taking the nissāya of a view that does not cause Suffering is impossible
AN 4.159 - the nissāyas being food, craving, clinging and sexual intercourse which lead to rebecoming
Snp 4.9 - where in the context of Magandiya’s search for rebirth, the Buddha asserts the negation of nissāya to end bhava.

It now becomes obvious why AN 11.9 is not describing the jhanas, but describing the attempts at meditating with craving for particular forms of rebirth based on the various attainments. The right meditation is anissāya, not in the sense that one does not rely on meditation objects, but in the sense that one does not rely on craving. That much is clear from the mention of the Hindrances; those are the nissāyas of wrong meditation.

That would explain the devas’ bewilderment, as they cannot imagine a situation where craving is not a nissāya upon which the Buddha meditates.


Hi @Sylvester,

Thanks once again for your contribution to this topic.

If I understood well your remarks, Polak seems to have missed some key aspects of the original Pali texts behind the suttas he used to come up with his thesis.

Would you say his (probable) lack of knowledge of Pali weakens significantly his argument that the state of cessation of perception and feeling (saññāvedayitanirodha) only gained relevance because the original meaning of jhana had been lost sometime in time?

Now, if you were put in front of Polak what would be your brief and succinct recommendations in terms of what he could do to refine or reconsider about his thesis?

All others,

Is there anyone else in this forum with a similar understanding of Pali who could confirm/endorse Sylvester’s remarks and corrections to Polak’s reading of the suttas?

At the risk of being off-topic, I would mention Alexander Wynne’s “The Origin of Buddhist Medication” (2007), where he goes into in-depth analysis (with a lot of heavy-weight philological details) of the Buddha’s samadhi practice as essentially adopting the pre-existing Vedic-Brahmanic practice but suffusing it with mindfulness and insight (vipassana) practice.

E.g. examining the Upasiva sutta (Suttanipata) as dialog pointing out how Brahmins knew samadhi (dhyana/jhana) as an sort of interim blissing-out on a path that didn’t reach its goal until death and merging with Brahma. Buddha points out using the same basic but in partnership with analytic and mentally developmental sati technique to be able to achieve liberation during life.

(My paraphrasing may not be totally accurate, but that’s the sense I got from it.)

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Hi Chris. Exactly which part of this sutta is being referred to, here?

[quote=“cjmacie, post:100, topic:3262”]
the Buddha’s samadhi practice as essentially adopting the pre-existing Vedic-Brahmanic practice… [/quote]
If this was truly the case, why to the suttas state the Buddha-To-Be recollected back to when he spontaneously entered jhana as a youth under the rose apple tree & decided to purse that in his search for enlightenment?

Since mindfulness is a factor of or prerequisite to samadhi, how exactly did Buddha suffuse samadhi with mindfulness?

Is this ‘merging with Brahma’ reported as a Vedic (Brahmanistic) teaching in the Pali suttas or in the old Veda themselves? Or is merging with Brahma a theory of later-day Hinduism? For example, DN 13 reports Brahmans not in agreement as to what was the path to union with Brahma.

‘Sati’ means to ‘remember’ or ‘recollect’. Being so, it seems there must be something pre-existing to remember or recollect (‘bring to mind’). Since the Buddha-To-Be was searching for the unknown, I doubt ‘sati’ was important in his search. :seedling:

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Apparently the whole book can be found in this link:

The specific chapter on the Upasiva Sutta and the Chapter on the Far Shore (Pārāyana Vagga) is found on page 81 of the PDF (and page 64 of the document).

The relevance of this chapter of the Sutta Nipata is that it is considered to contain, together with the Atthaka Vagga, the metrically oldest verses of the Pali Canon. Hence, scholars like to focus of these texts when trying to come up with their theories. :slight_smile:

Interestingly, it is indeed true - as the book says - that apart of its antiquity the Pārāyana Vagga’s puccha-based suttas - basically Q&A sessions - tells us a lot of how and with what kind of vocabulary the Buddha’s talked about the goal with non-Buddhists at his time.

For those curios of what is the Wynne’s take on Upasiva Sutta I quote:

"The dialogue with Upasiva depicts an interaction between a religious teacher with new ideas and an adherent of an existing religion. It is a spectacular example of the Buddha’s famed ‘skill in means’, showing how the ideas and metaphors of the old religion were revolutionized.

For half the dialogue (v. 1069–72) the Buddha and Upasiva are almost speaking on the same level. Upasiva has difficulty understanding the combination of meditation and mindfulness in the Buddha’s teaching, but at least recognizes the problem it creates in the context of early Brahminic meditation. But in the latter half of the dialogue Upasiva does not seem to grasp the meaning of the Buddha’s words, and continues to speak as a Brahmin conditioned by the Brahminic ideas of his time.

The Buddha, we can assume, has a knowledge of Upasiva’s ideas and knows exactly what he is doing. In this way, the new teaching is expertly introduced into the framework of the old."

Reading three translations of Snp 5.7 (which I find difficult to follow), my conclusion is not the same as that of Wynne’s. To me, Upasiva sounds totally lost, from beginning to end.

Upasiva states:

“I am not able to cross over the great flood”.

The Buddha replies with instruction of:

Having given up sense pleasures, abstaining from talk

The Buddha’s reply here gives the impression Upasiva was not adept at samadhi & jhana as Wynne seems to have concluded (per the post of @cjmacie ).

Also, I find the phrase: “Saññāvimokkhe parame vimutto” interesting, which is translated as:

"intent on the highest freedom which still has perception" (Sutta Central/Anandajoti)

“being released in the highest release from perception” (Norman)

"released in the highest emancipation of perception" (Thanissaro).

Is Wynne inferring Upasiva understood higher states of non-perception?

Or could the phrase simply mean:

the perception of the freedom that is the supreme freedom”?

MN 43, for example, lists many kinds of freedom (boundless metta, nothingness, signless & sunnata) and concludes that sunnata-vimutti is the supreme among them.

Therefore, Upasiva could have been simply asking:

Is passionless towards all sense pleasures, abiding in nothingness, having given up all else,
Is this the perception of the freedom that is the supreme freedom that does not cease?

In summary, I personally do not discern Buddha and Upasiva are almost speaking on the same level. Instead, I discern the Buddha putting specific dhammas into Upasiva’s mouth and Upasiva is asking very general/broad questions in response.


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Yes Deeele, usually scholars end up adding too much assumptions to their arguments. These puccha Suttas are very dense to allow for any conclusion straight away. Still, Wynne feels totally comfortable to go wild in philological analysis of the stanzas.

Maybe this is the reason the later layers of the Tripitaka tend to be so explicit, repetitive and detailed: their compilers were trying to break with a possible oral transmission tradition of stanza based short Suttas which required in itself another tradition of exposition and exegesis.


Venerable Analayo has published a response to the Polak article in the latest issue of the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. For those of you who have subscription access to the journal, here is the link:

Unfortunately, I have not been able to discover a free version of the article. Analayo has it listed at his Hamburg web site, but without a link. And I do not believe he has uploaded it to

I just downloaded the article, and so will try to summarize the argument after I have digested it.


Hi DKervick
This article does not seem to address Polak article but the old issue of becoming awakened using Jhana vs using dry-vipassana. This issue was in particular raised by Louis Étienne Joseph Marie de La Vallée-Poussin in his famous essay Musila et Nārada (1937).
Instead Polak is raising three main points:

  1. the understanding of what role Jhanas play in liberation from suffering has been lost and needs to be rediscovered
  2. Insight is not a practice; insight come at the most unexpected times as Ah Ah or Eureka moments. So Vipassana practice is a waste of time.
  3. the Jhanas à la Visudhimagga and the four attainments are not from the Buddha but came from the Brahmanic tradition that predated the Buddha