Polak's Reexamining Jhanas

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.)

1 Like

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:

1 Like

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.


1 Like

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 Academia.edu.

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

Looks like I wasn’t the only one to bump a topic today. :laughing:

I would think it’s the other way around

My understanding is that he would consider Ajahn Brahm’s as ‘yogic’ meditation tentatively retrofitted for Buddhism and Thanissaro’s as being the orthodox practice, or at least closer to it than AB’s

Polak actually quotes Ajahn Brahm directly on page 49 as an example of the yogic/jainic aim of crushing the senses into nothing

Furthermore, you should know that while in any Jhāna it is impossible to experience the body (e.g. physical pain), hear a sound from outside or produce any thought, not even “good” thoughts (Brahm 2006: 24–25).

He later takes multiple paragraphs to hold Brahm up even more directly as a teacher of yoga on 183.

He also gives special attention to Ajahn Lee on 182, and I have heard directly from Ajahn Geoff himself that Ajahn Lee developed his meditation methods involving breath energy and the rest from his direct observations of Indian yogis while on pilgrimage.

To throw my hat in here, I would say that Polak’s criticism here applies to pretty much the entirety of contemporary Theravada praxis with the singular exception of Ajahn Nyanamoli of Hillside Hermitage. I was a long-time student of Ajahn Geoff and was actually staying at Wat Metta for a time when I started to really question all these discrepancies for myself. I was listening to Nyanamoli’s criticisms of all concentration methods and reading books like Keren Arbel’s Early Buddhist Meditation and came to the conclusion based on all the evidence from the early canon that Nyanamoli is right and basically everything people are taught about meditation is wrong from the perspective of the EBTs. That is obviously a radical claim but, to me, taking Nyanamoli’s lead and translating samadhi as composure rather than concentration or absorption and conceptualizing the jhanas as the natural manifestation of a mind deeply secluded from sensuality and composed through restraint and constant mindfulness has resolved a lot of doctrinal contradictions, beyond whatever direct results it may or may not have brought me.

EDIT: I’ve recently become aware of Venerable Bhante Vimalaramsi’s teaching on meditation and, though it is printed in books that I can only adequately describe as “Boomer Dhamma” printed in Comic Sans😂, Vimalaramsi seems to also advocate a broad awareness form of meditation that “endures” the hindrances rather than fights them much like what is taught by Venerable Nyanamoli. Very strange parallels between two teachers that could otherwise not be any different…


All Buddhists have been practicing meditation wrong for 2500 years, until a western monk heavily influenced by Existentialism and Phenomenology worked it out? That is quite the claim.


As Polak thoroughly describes, all the common meditation methods and techniques taught in contemporary Theravada are directly tied to yogic meditation and not particularly rooted in any longstanding Buddhist tradition because, before it was restarted in the 19th century, there simply was no Theravada meditation tradition. And many of the Thai Forest Ajahns, notably both Ajahn Mun and Ajahn Chah, heavily emphasized the interpenetration of sila and samadhi to the point of their being effectively unified into a singular practice. So Nyanamoli’s point that jhana is far more of a lifestyle than something brought about by focusing hard enough is not at all controversial within the Thai Forest tradition. Eventually Ajahn Mun abandoned buddho and just stayed directly with the citta, same kind of thing with Ajahn Chah. So yeah, I do think concentration or focusing exercises are not at all based on the EBTs, but that doesn’t mean that a monk who lived like Ajahn Mun or Ajahn Chah would not eventually attain arahantship in spite of the relatively wrong-headed meditation techniques they inherited from the Visuddhimagga. The eggs will hatch if the hen sits on them, and the Buddha’s teaching is “holographic” enough, to use Ajahn Geoff’s word for it, that even some slightly distorted doctrines and practices entering into the dispensation will naturally be compensated for and overcome by a solid enough foundation in the gradual training, as many forest monks in all sects of Buddhism have inspirationally demonstrated. Just because focusing exercises were not what the Buddha probably had in mind doesn’t mean that Right Samadhi could not eventually arise even within that kind of container.

EDIT: Also, if you just read Being and Time or Being and Nothingness I think the remarkable discernment and seriousness that the existential phenomenologists applied to the human problem will become apparent. Given that these philosophers were working, for the most part, completely independently from the Buddhist cultural environment, I don’t think it’s wise to completely write them off as having nothing of value to offer. Their phenomenology was basically a blank slate to write on and functioned completely independently from any reliance on Buddhist doctrinal tradition, though it of course came with a whole host of completely different cultural baggage than that of the East. I think that Heidegger and the Buddha intersect at all and do so on so many varied aspects of human experience despite 2,600 years and an entire continent separating them means something. The Buddha’s insight went deeper and was ultimately more practically useful, useful in a transcendentally valuable way, but that doesn’t mean that intellectual supplements or hermeneutic tools have no place in our relationship with the Dhamma, especially when we are in the position that every modern Buddhist is where we cannot even be precisely sure what that Dhamma was until we have entered the stream for ourselves.

1 Like

It seems Polak’s ideas are confused & literally illogical. Polak says:

This account must seem all too familiar to us by now, but contrary to what Ajahn
Brahm writes, it is not jhāna that we are reminded of here. The complete inactivity of
the senses
, the resemblance to a dead person, the halt in the functioning of the most
basic bodily operations are all the features of the highest yogic state of meditation,
the very same state that was introduced by the later Buddhists under the name of
saññāvedayitanirodha. There can be no doubt, that Ajahn Brahm’s jhāna possesses
all the distinct features of yogic meditation.

The Buddha taught there are six sense bases rather than five sense bases. I do not recall Ajahn Brahm ever taught the mind sense base becomes inactive in jhana.

Arbel seems to be merely an other Western (including Jewish) university scholar, similar to Polak, although (not knowing the same about Polak) Arbel considers herself to be a meditator. In browsing her book, I came to the conclusion of much overestimation of her experiences.

Its difficult, at least for me, to enter into scholarly discussions with/about monks who seem to have a very poor command of both the English language and Pali meanings.

Furthermore, you should know that while in any Jhāna it is impossible to experience the body (e.g. physical pain), hear a sound from outside or produce any thought, not even “good” thoughts (Brahm 2006: 24–25).

Correct. The suttas say there are only six salient experiences in jhana, which are vitakka, vicara, piti, sukkha, equanimity & ekaggata.

Ajahn Brahm has clearly explained what “vitakka & vicara” are to him (the “jhana wobble”). Monks such as Sujato and Buddhadasa have literally supported this view, namely, the meaning of vitakka & vicara in the 1st jhana does not have the meaning of “ordinary thought”.

MN 19 is actually literally clear that the three wholesome thoughts that constitute Samma Sankappa of the Noble Path are “far from concentration”.

As I abided thus, diligent, ardent, and resolute, a thought of non-ill will arose in me…a thought of non-cruelty arose in me. I understood thus: ‘This thought of non-cruelty has arisen in me. This does not lead to my own affliction, or to others’ affliction, or to the affliction of both; it aids wisdom, does not cause difficulties, and leads to Nibbāna. If I think and ponder upon this thought even for a night, even for a day, even for a night and day, I see nothing to fear from it. But with excessive thinking and pondering I might tire my body, and when the body is tired, the mind becomes strained, and when the mind is strained, it is far from concentration.’ So I steadied my mind internally, quieted it, brought it to singleness, and concentrated it. Why is that? So that my mind should not be strained.

Tireless energy was aroused in me and unremitting mindfulness was established, my body was tranquil and untroubled, my mind concentrated and unified.

Quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, I entered upon and abided in the first jhāna

MN 19

I cannot recall reading one sutta that says the thoughts of relinquishment, non-ill-will and non-cruelty are active in jhana. Ajahn Brahm relies in SN 48.9, which says the only mental activity to reach jhana is “letting go”. This cannot be regarded as “yogic”. Instead, it represents the utter core of Buddhist practice. :sunny:

1 Like

I don’t think we need Western Philosophy to practice the Dhamma. I don’t think the Dhamma needs any holes to be filled in by it. Regarding Jhāna, if someone attains it based on say the Earth Kasiṇa how is that not absorption, since there is only 1 perception being cognised?