Polak's Reexamining Jhanas

The occurrence of ‘ekaggaṃ’ I previously quoted from MN 19 appears to be preliminary or a pre-requisite to the descriptions of the 4 jhanas thus often overlooked by readers who focus on the standard definitions of the four jhanas found in the noble eightfold path (eg SN 45.8).

Ekaggataṃ’ is found in the SN, most notably below, which is a ‘non-yogic’ quote relevant to Polak’s criticism of ‘yogic’ techniques:

Katamañca bhikkhave, samādhindriyaṃ: idha bhikkhave, ariyasāvako vossaggārammaṇaṃ1 karitvā labhati samādhiṃ, labhati cittassa ekaggataṃ

What is the faculty of concentration? There is the case where a monk, a disciple of the noble ones, making it his object to let go, attains concentration, attains singleness of mind. Quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful mental qualities, he enters & remains in the first jhana:… SN 48.9; SN 48.10


Chandañce, bhikkhave, bhikkhu nissāya labhati samādhiṃ, labhati cittassa ekaggataṃ—ayaṃ vuccati chandasamādhi. SN 51.13

I’m not against any of these ideas if they necessarily follow from thorough sutta investigations. I can’t see how one is to prove that the arupas are brahmin inventions, but if you kindly provide the page numbers along with your quotes that would help.

Btw I hope he doesn’t single out two three suttas on which he grounds all his arguments. Some people do that, but it’s a rather weak position - that core elements of the teaching would be hidden in unusual suttas…

Um, what? To begin with, the “Mahā” vagga is not the main vagga of the SN, but rather a corruption of “Magga”. It is one of the four main vaggas in the SA and SN, which are themselves modeled on the Four Noble Truths. As for ekaggatā, it is found very frequently all throughout the SA / SN, and appears as a synonym for samādhi.

The basic arc of Buddhist meditation in the SA / SN is that mindfulness leads to samādhi. This is found all throughout the collection, and in many of the most important formulations, such as the Noble Eightfold Path, the Seven Factors of Bodhi, the Five Roots, the Five Powers, and in many instances of the formula for “dependent liberation.”

Moreover, in many instances within the SA / SN, a monk practicing Anapana is said to be in concentration, and the term Ānāpāna Samādhi is even used as a synonym for Ānāpānassati. This is all found within the Sutta Aṅga of the SA / SN, which is believed to be the oldest part of the collection.


Where is the term 'ānā­pā­na-samā­dhi’ found in the SN? I have found ‘ānā­pā­nas-sa­ti­-samā­dhi’ but not 'ānā­pā­na-samā­dhi’.

Since the body is always breathing, including in sleep, I doubt a monk can practise ‘Anapana’. Instead, it is probable that a monk practises ‘sati’ ('mindfulness) since the mind can be forgetful of practising the dhamma.

I do not dispute the mind can develop concentration (samadhi) using mindfulness however I doubt there can be ‘developed concentration’ without mindfulness (although there could be ‘spontaneous concentration’ without mindfulness).

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That’s right, the term is rather ānā­pā­nassa­ti­samā­dhi. The point still holds, which is that samādhi is commonly associated with these practices.

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This is a fascinating discourse. However, and not surprisingly, as a slight beginner I’m a bit lost as a consequence.

What’s the consensus as of yet? What has been agreed upon? What does anapanasati usually contain, the breath or the body being tranquilised? (although I guess that’s something I can test out myself!) And what notion of jhana is generally agreed upon here?

From what I can see the following makes sense:
I resonate with the idea that tranquillising the body, breath, and thoughts result in giving up and letting go, moving one towards jhana.

I also see that jhana can result in liberating insight (spontaneous liberation moment (letting go) and insight practice as a thing is not needed - I’m surprised I haven’t seen liberating insight in this way before).

I see that sense restraint as the more coarse preliminary practice does not necessitate the ending of sense experience in jhana but rather the letting go of reactivity towards sense objects in daily life. Although the arupajhanas (what is the Pali non-commentarial word for these?) seem to result in no sense experience.

Beyond this now, and in a way that i can, perhaps selfishly, link this to how this discussion can be brought into the practice itself…

First a question, and perhaps a naïve one at that. How could I apply the gradual training to my practice, and how would you all recommend approaching anapanasati meditation as a beginner (not to vipassana or other meditation though) to anapanasati, has anybody had any jhana experience here and used a specific method that compliments the idea of giving up an letting go and tranquillising the bodily formations (breath or body)? I’m aware this is probably hotly debated, but as long as each leads to the same destination I assume its not the biggest deal, whatever floats my boat then…

Also how do the satipatthanas relate to the practice, this has always confused me… they seem counterintuitive to anapanasati and like there is a lot of doing going on… or is it a progression that happens naturally in the course of letting go perhaps during anapanasati? For example, one firsts let’s go to clinging of the body by their attention constantly being pulled to it to which one then lets go. In this sense how can I bring my practice off the cushion, at the moment my understanding is to cultivate Goodwill and other virtues in the day and to tranquilised and calm down as much as I can. Would more concrete practice in daily activities help perhaps?

Anyway, that’s about it, what’s the consensus and how could one apply these ideas to the practice. Id love to bring this all back down to earth somewhat.

Hi all,
Sorry but I think it would be good to stick to the topic, which is Polak’s book and the “jhāna controversy” it tries to address.

A key element of his argument is that the doctrinal relevance suttas like MN26 gives to the state of cessation of perception and feeling (saññāvedayitanirodha) is questionable and possibly non legitimate.

This has an interesting practical implication as it may be driving people to practice anapanasati with the wrong objective of inducing a too-deep state of cessation-based concentration which may have little to do with the jhana the earliest suttas (and possibly the Buddha) refer to.

Moreover, Polak’s thesis calls attention to how that misleading meditative target / aim sustain a misleading notion of liberating insight/ knowledge.

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Gabriel is right let’s stay on this very important topic of the eighth component of the eightfold path: What kind of Jhana shall we aim for and what approach to be followed to attain them?
Meanwhile it is essential to realise that Jhānas are just the result of developing the other seven components of the path. For this one has to eDADs (eliminates Desires, Aversions and Delusions). And for eDADs one is using the eightfold path for each individual components of the DADs.
I already posted in another post an example of how to use the eightfold path to eliminate an aversion resulting in also eliminating the associated desire.


It contains the breath. Each of the 14 lessons states: “He trains himself, 'I will breathe in…He trains himself, 'I will breathe out”.

This is important. When Polak distinguishes between meditation techniques, each must be tested. Generally, new meditators begin with ‘yogic techniques’ until progress wanes due to the limitations of such yogic techniques. For example, using a yogic technique to observe breathing will result in breathing calming, which is a very good result (since calmness is the desired result). But, after a while, the breath will calm to such a degree while the mental yogic technique remains unchanged, which results in the breathing being difficult to discern & little insight (vipassana) into the breathing process occuring.

Your idea sounds like the ‘yogic’ meditation Polak is criticising. Polak’s idea is more akin to giving up and letting go result in tranquilizing the thoughts, breath & body, moving the mind towards jhana. In other words, the liberation starts at the beginning rather than only at the end.

What Polak has said in this respect is not anything novel. The standard Buddhist view is insight happens automatically when concentration is properly established. Further, jhana is not a pre-requisite for insight since the liberating insight of a stream-enterer generally occurs before jhana. Therefore, the issue Polak seems to be raising (namely, concentration founded on yogic methods versus concentration founded on letting-go) is the quality of concentration will directly affect the quantum of insight. For example, a strongly directed ‘yogic’ concentration is both rigid & a strong thought formation (which hinders insight) where as concentration founded on letting-go is ‘fluid’. Being fluid, it allows consciousness to ‘flow’ & be more clear thus enhances insight into impermanence & not-self of the breathing process & the breathing’s effects upon the body & mind.

As I already posted, beginners generally start using what Polak calls ‘yogic techniques’, such as counting breaths, following the breath or watching/feeling the breath at the nose-tip/nostril area. Beginners generally make whatever clumsy attempts to watch the breath they can. Generally, the main obstacle here to practise is hindrances & distracting thoughts. Using yogic techniques are often beneficial for the beginner because yogic techniques ‘suppress’ hindrances & thoughts. But once the hindrances & thoughts are basically under control & some degree of calm is reached, the yogic techniques will display their limitations. From this point, with hindrances under control, a ‘letting-go’ technique that Polak appears to be highlighting can be employed. If a beginner believes they are ready to use a letting-go technique, I would recommend Ajahn Brahm’s book called ‘Mindfulness Bliss & Beyond’. The necessary information for beginners here is available for free on the internet, here: http://www.dhammaloka.org.au/files/pdf/Ajahn_Brahm-Mindfulness_Bliss_and_Beyond-Chapters1-4.pdf

I can only speculate that those that ‘hotly debate’ in favour of yogic techniques against ‘letting go’ techniques are hotly attached to their yogic techniques taught by Goenka, Mahasi, Visuddhimagga, etc. But if a person wants to experience the fruits of non-attachment, they would sensibly engage the letting-go technique (since this should surely float the boat down the stream to Nibbana).

[quote=“peace, post:27, topic:3262”]
Also how do the satipatthanas relate to the practice, this has always confused me… they seem counterintuitive to anapanasati…[/quote]
Whilst this question might possibly be off-topic, the satipatthana actually flow out of anapanasati, as explained in MN 118. If the mind merely & simply ‘lets-go’, thus being in a state of clear silence, the breathing will naturally become the dominant sense object. This is the 1st satipatthana. When breathing calms, simply via the letting-go or equanimity of the mind, the result will be the arising of rapture, which then replaces the breathing as the dominant sense object. This is the 2nd satipatthana. Then when rapture calms, there will be some residual underlying tendencies (defilements) of mind, which become the dominant sense object and which are then cleansed & liberated from. This is the 3rd satipatthana. Then the cleansed liberated mind will be in such a clean flexible state it will discern impermanence as the dominant sense object. This is the 4th satipatthana. This is why MN 118 states anapanasati fulfils the satipatthana. In other words, they are one & the same thing. For more about this, Ajahn Buddhadasa’s book is probably the best: http://www.dhammatalks.net/Books3/Bhikkhu_Buddhadasa_Anapanasati_Mindfulness_with_Breathing.htm

Again, this question might be off-topic (however I have no aversion to multi-tasking, as I write this post while working). I would just continue to do what you are doing since you don’t want to look like a ‘meditation zombie’ to others in daily activities. However, if you have a desk job, you can try meditating while working privately (eg, watching breathing while looking at a computer screen, reading & typing). I think as formal meditation practise develops & deepens, the fruits will naturally carry themselves into daily activities.


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Since it’s ultimately about the practice it would be a shame not to go into that, but could you please open a new topic with the same text? Don’t hope for too much consensus in details though :slight_smile:

For a solid foundation you can’t go wrong with Ajahn Sujato’s writings, for example ‘A Swift Pair of Messangers’

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I see that some of you guys are convinced by new insights from Polak’s work. I see assumptions over assumptions on every page and don’t even know where to start. His discoveries that Ajahn Mun didn’t have a proper teacher, or that mantras are not traditional buddhist meditation objects are by no means secrets for example - for whom does he write that - the beginning meditator? the scholar? a vaguely interested public?

on page 193 we find about applying “impermanence” to one’s meditation experience: “although one thinks that he is contemplating the nature of his experience, he is completely unaware of his real present activity”.
Why to bring in a notion of “real present activity”? that’s a philosophical speculation - as if we have any access to a ‘real activity’ in ‘the full innocent present moment’. It’s quite easy to logically see that one is never in tune with the ‘reality here and now’. As long as there is a mind-impression/sensation there is a cognitive apparatus that filters, selects and categorized. This in fact is a claim that Advaita makes to advance non-dual states of mind. But anyway, it’s pure philosophy, with claims, discourses and assumptions of its own, it doesn’t lead anywhere, and doesn’t help the practitioner.
So everywhere I see a weird mix of kinda-history, kinda-philosophy, kinda-sutta-study. None of it is precise enough to stand on its own and still makes claims to reveal something new. Really it’s just on every page I’ve read so far, so I at least can’t get inspiration or insight out of it. But again, if you have pages with precise deductions from history or pali-suttas, please reference the page and I’m glad to find something new…

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Respectfully, Polak has not offered any “new insights” to me; despite my agreement with some his points (and disagreement with others). I personally have not read any ‘yogic techniques’ in the suttas thus do not need Polak to point this out to me. When I first practised meditation, many years ago, I tried to follow the ‘yogic techniques’ below but gave them up after they reached the limits of their usefulness. :seedling:

We have some tricks to use on the breath and these tricks come in five stages. These five tricks or skillful means are:

1. following the breath;

2. guarding the breath at a certain point;

3. giving rise to an imaginary image at that guarding point;

_4. manipulating those images in any ways that we want in order to gain power over them; _

5. selecting one of these images and contemplating it in a most concentrated way until the breath becomes truly calm and peaceful.

That’s a good question and indeed I would like to make it to himself.

The idea of this post was to not only bring his book to people’s knowledge here but hopefully see if we can come up with questions that are good enough to bring back to Polak himself.

While I don’t follow or buy most of his points - and frankly dont even bother to scrutinize all of the book’s chapters - I do agree with many of his open questions / considerations listed in the ‘Perspectives’ chapter.

I am definitely keen on challenging, making use of the suttas, the understanding that the Buddha taught people to place all their bets either on A) forcing the mind to a ultra deep (and possibly not achievable at all by most of us) states of absorption for liberating insight to take place or on B) conditioning themselves to be almost robotic and fully passive observers of the experience of existence who can all but hope for insight to one day take place.

A being the approach of those pursuing visudhimagga jhana and B being the approach of the jhana-less vipassana of modern Burmese masters, mostly based on Abhidhamma commentaries.

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Could you link that post please?

Not sure how to link a post. Anyway let’s try:

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[details=Summary]why isn’t ekagatta in the suttas? admittedly quite rarely but it does appear
or do you mean specifically in the jhana formulas?[/details]

If ekagatta is supposed to be the essential component present in all Jhānas while pītī and sukha progressively disappear as you go from Jhāna one to Jhāna four, then the Buddha would not have forgotten to put it in the standard Jhāna formula. Instead ekagatta was a late introduction after the Buddha passing away, that totally distorted the Jhānas that he had re-discovered as a child and later on made his key component for liberation I.e. The eighth component of the eightfold path.

Possibly ‘ekagatta’ is synonymous with ‘jhana’. Can ‘jhana’ be a mind that is not perfectly stable?

Picture an axle that holds a tyre wheel in place. Sometimes the wheel spins (vitakka & vicara) around the axle; sometimes the wheel does not spin but is full of air (2nd jhana); sometimes the air is removed from the tyre (3rd jhana) & sometimes the tyre is removed (4th jhana). In each case, the features of the wheel are different but the wheel rim (citta) remains fixed in place by the axle (of ‘ekagatta’).

MN 111 lists the respective different & same features of the various jhanas. Those features that are the same for each jhana are not mentioned in the standard jhana formula. Why would they be? Why would the Buddha, for example, mention ‘consciousness’ as a jhana factor, even though it obviously arises in jhana?

There was the case where Sariputta — quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful qualities — entered & remained in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born of seclusion, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. Whatever qualities there are in the first jhana — directed thought, evaluation, rapture, pleasure, singleness of mind, contact, feeling, perception, intention, consciousness, desire, decision, persistence, mindfulness, equanimity & attention — he ferreted them out one after another.

Furthermore, with the abandoning of pleasure & stress — as with the earlier disappearance of elation & distress — Sariputta entered & remained in the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity & mindfulness, neither-pleasure-nor-pain. Whatever qualities there are in the fourth jhana — a feeling of equanimity, neither pleasure nor pain; an unconcern due to serenity of awareness; singleness of mind, contact, feeling, perception, intention, consciousness, desire, decision, persistence, mindfulness, equanimity & attention — he ferreted them out one after another.

A good example that shows that in Jhana one, one can think and ponder and is not in an ekagatta situation.

Standard formula Jhana #2: vitakkavicārānaṃ vūpasamā ajjhattaṃ sampasādanaṃ cetaso ekodibhāvaṃ

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