Polak's Reexamining Jhanas

But there is no EBT source that I know of for this. I recently reviewed every instance of vitakka in the EBTs and was unable to find a single occurrence supporting this claim

I am going to post this here and not on the thread quoted below as it seems even more relevant here

While doing an unrelated search, I stumbled upon this passage of MN 142 which seems to imply that non-Buddhists practiced jhanas at the time the sutta was created. It doesn’t actually prove that Polak’s hypothesis is false, as it doesn’t prove that they were already doing so before the Buddha was enlightened, but this is definitely something he should have included in his book.

One gives a gift to an outsider who is free of sensual desire.
Bāhirake kāmesu vītarāge dānaṁ deti

As a matter of fact it speaks to a general weakness of his work (which makes it a bit difficult to read), in that it seems more like a first draft that would need feedback from other experts and subsequent adjustments. Not only regarding things like this, but also as regards the general style of writing, since his chapters sometimes lacks a clear guiding thread and unfortunately tend to look like a collection of ramblings in which the reader loses the overly convoluted logic of the progression in the proliferation of apparent sidetracks the author engages in.


I already posted MN 19, which says the Buddha stilled all ordinary thought before entering jhana. It follows it seems the vitakka & vicara of jhana cannot be ordinary thought. With metta. :sunny:

I see.

I have addressed this argument some years ago, so I will reproduce the research below

So here is what the sutta says, precisely:

aticiraṃ anuvitakketi anuvicāreti >> kāyo kilamati >> cittaṃ ūhaññati >> ārā cittaṃ samādhimhā
thinking and pondering for a long time >> the body is tired >> the mind is disturbed >> the mind is away/far from concentration

Does this sutta say that thinking has to be stopped before entering the first jhana? Obviously not.

What it does clearly say is this:

  1. Even when the Buddha speaks of concentration, he uses the word ‘vitakka’ and its derivatives (here the verb ‘vitakketi’) in the sense of ‘thinking’.
  2. ‘Thinking’ for « a long time » (aticiraṃ could be more accurately translated by « an excessively [ati-] long time [cira] »), will tire the body and render concentration impossible.

Is this passage compatible with the idea that ‘vitakka’ would mean something else than ‘thinking’ in jhana, and that actually there would be no ‘vitakka’ (in the usual sense of ‘thought’) in the first jhana? Well, it certainly seems so to some. But then again, ‘vitakka’ is used in its usual sense of ‘thought’ even in the context of samadhi practice, such as in this very passage of MN 19, and yet in that same context of samadhi practice, there would be no ‘vitakka’ in the sense of ‘thought’. In short, even in the context of samadhi practice we see that ‘vitakka’=’thought’ and yet, if Bhante Sujato is correct, in the first jhana we would have ‘vitakka’ but ‘thoughts’ would be absent.

That does not make any sense to me, and as a math teacher I would consider this a gross pedagogic mistake. I am quite convinced from my overall experience with the suttas that the Buddha mastered the art of pedagogy, and therefore I am not inclined to consider he would have made such a confusing mistake.

Now, is this passage incompatible with the idea that ‘vitakka’ could mean ‘thinking’ in the jhana formula? I would dare to say it is not.

As we have noted above, what it says exactly is that « excess » of thinking « for a long time » is detrimental to concentration. That does not mean there cannot be thinking in the first stage of jhana. It could mean however that the first jhana is not to be practiced excessively, or for a too long time. Let us compare here ‘vitakka’ with the expression ‘āraddha·vīriya’ (aroused energy). MN 19 continues and shows that aroused energy is well compatible with the first jhana, or at least that it leads towards it:

āraddhaṃ kho pana me, bhikkhave, vīriyaṃ ahosi asallīnaṃ, upaṭṭhitā sati asammuṭṭhā, passaddho kāyo asāraddho, samāhitaṃ cittaṃ ekaggaṃ. so kho ahaṃ, bhikkhave, vivicceva kāmehi vivicca akusalehi dhammehi savitakkaṃ savicāraṃ vivekajaṃ pītisukhaṃ paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ upasampajja vihāsiṃ. »

« 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: rapture & pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. »

Yet acc·āraddha·vīriya (ati+āraddha+vīriya, excess of energy) is also detrimental to concentration, as MN 128 states:

« accāraddhavīriyaṃ kho me udapādi, accāraddhavīriyādhikaraṇañca pana me samādhi cavi. samādhimhi cute obhāso antaradhāyati dassanañca rūpānaṃ. seyyathāpi, anuruddhā, puriso ubhohi hatthehi vaṭṭakaṃ gāḷhaṃ gaṇheyya: so tattheva patameyya »

« Excess of energy arose in me, and because of excess of energy my concentration fell away. As my composure fell away, the light and the vision of forms disappeared.’ It is as if a man were to seize a quail tightly with both hands: it would die then and there. »

So I would conclude here that this argument based on MN 19 appears unconvincing to me, insofar as saying that excess of something is detrimental to attaining a certain state is not to be conflated with saying that this thing prevents per se the attainment of that state, and that therefore it cannot be present in it. It can very well be one prominent component of it, that is usually present in a moderate way, even though it would be better if it weren’t there at all. Not unlike processed sugar in food: even though it would be better to have food without processed sugar, a little bit of it doesn’t make food uneatable, whereas too much processed sugar does.

Now there might be another way in which one might try to say that MN 19 would prove that ‘thinking’ has to be abandoned before entering jhana, but I’ll only mention it briefly because it stands even less to analysis: it would be to consider that MN 19 progresses linearly, in such a way that the states described later are always more refined than the ones described earlier; then, since the sutta speaks first of ending thoughts and only later on of entering jhana, it should mean that the former has to come before the latter in actual practice, and that there could not be ‘thinking’ in jhana.

Such an assumption would obviously be erroneous. Indeed, MN 19 speaks first of absence of disturbance, of stilling thoughts and of concentration:

« thinking & pondering a long time would tire the body. When the body is tired, the mind is disturbed; and a disturbed mind is far from concentration.’ So I steadied my mind right within, settled, unified, & concentrated it. Why is that? So that my mind would not be disturbed. »

But then, in the next paragraph, it goes back to speaking again about thinking:

« Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking & pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with renunciation, abandoning thinking imbued with sensuality, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with renunciation. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with non-ill will, abandoning thinking imbued with ill will, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with non-ill will. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with harmlessness, abandoning thinking imbued with harmfulness, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with harmlessness. »

Which clearly indicates a not-so-linear exposition.


Perhaps what you are missing here is that when the sutta says ‘the mind is far from samadhi’ it refers to the 2nd jhana as it is the 2nd jhana which is ‘born of samadhi’ unlike the 1st which is ‘born of withdrawal’.

I hope this clarifies the issue


Vitakka & vicara mean the same thing in the early texts and both are synonymous with saṅkappa, meaning they are closer to intentions than just mental thinking. From the PTS:

Saṅkappa, (saṃ+kḷp , cp. kappeti fig. meaning) thought, intention, purpose, plan D. III, 215; S. II, 143 sq.; A. I, 281; II, 36; Dh. 74; Sn. 154, 1144; Nd1 616 (=vitakka ñāṇa paññā buddhi); Dhs. 21; DhA. II, 78. As equivalent of vitakka also at D. III, 215; A. IV, 385; Dhs. 7.—kāma° a lustful thought A. III, 259; V, 31. paripuṇṇa° having one’s intentions fulfilled M. I, 192; III, 276; D. III, 42; A. V, 92, 97 sq.; sara° memories & hopes M. I, 453; S. IV, 76; vyāpāda°, vihiṃsa°, malicious, cruel purposes, M. II, 27 sq.; sammā° right thoughts or intentions, one of the aṅgas of the 8—fold Path (ariya-magga) Vin. I, 10; D. II, 312; A.III, 140; VbhA. 117. Saṅkappa is defd at DhsA. 124 as (cetaso) abhiniropanā , i.e. application of the mind. See on term also Cpd. 238. (Page 662)

But the Upakkilesasutta seems to treat them as distinct:

So kho ahaṁ, anuruddhā, savitakkampi savicāraṁ samādhiṁ bhāvesiṁ, avitakkampi vicāramattaṁ samādhiṁ bhāvesiṁ, avitakkampi avicāraṁ samādhiṁ bhāvesiṁ, sappītikampi samādhiṁ bhāvesiṁ, nippītikampi samādhiṁ bhāvesiṁ, sātasahagatampi samādhiṁ bhāvesiṁ, upekkhāsahagatampi samādhiṁ bhāvesiṁ.

Thereupon, Anuruddha, I developed concentration with applied thought and sustained thought; I developed concentration without applied thought but with sustained thought only; I developed concentration without applied thought and without sustained thought; I developed concentration with rapture; I developed concentration without rapture; I developed concentration accompanied by enjoyment; I developed concentration accompanied by equanimity.


Mistake repeated for a very long time is still a mistake. But nevertheless the claim was about contemporary theravadin praxis - which is a revival of previously forgotten meditation practice that began around 19th century.


As to the general topic of “jhanas”, I think that both options are viable, the “yoga jhanas” or whatever else. Seriously, why not? Samadhi is basis for insight, there are many types of samadhi, so they may be different techniques, as long as they’re rooted in right view and Noble Eightfold Path in general. :slight_smile: I agree with Ceisiwr that it is pretty crazy to think that all this people in the past did practice incorrectly. Maybe they just found a little bit different way, but still within basic principles of Buddha-Dhamma, so working? :slight_smile: Isn’t that actual progress of the tradition, that we have different methods for arriving at the same thing? In this way, even if Visuddhimagga differs from the suttas a little bit, cannot it be different, but still viable way of practice?

Also Sadhu Sadhu Bhante Sekha (Silence) for your analysis on MN19. :pray:

I really think path can manifest in many ways for different people, and it is importaint to be careful not to project our own experience onto the whole world.

It is nothing like the Buddha taught. He did give very general principles regarding meditation, exactly because the particulars manifest differently for different people. Meditation is as rich subject as rich is complexity of human mind. Such is my opinion on the matter.

In the suttas we find 4 iddhipadas, which are one of the basis for developing samadhi. They’re: chanda, viriya, citta and vimamsa. So even Buddha said there are different path to developing samadhi. So the experience might vary enermously. Visuddhimagga approach is a lot based on viriya. Does it contrading teachings of the Buddha? I don’t think so. Is it the only correct way of practice? Also not.

EDIT: sorry I’m duplicating the post, but it wasn’t intented as reply to Venerable Dhammanando, but a general reply. :slight_smile:


The passage says:

So I steadied my mind internally, quieted it, brought it to singleness, and concentrated it


Sujato, and others such as Buddhadasa & Brahm, have suggested a different type of vitakka, where there is a movement of mind without the ordinary thinking. The mind is drawn to the object or “reaches out” to the object. 'Vicara" is “exploring” the object or “looking around”. This vitakka & vicara indicate the mind is not completely still when experiencing piti. The piti is influencing the citta move. Where as in the 2nd jhana, the mind becomes perfectly at ease with the piti & sukha.

The energy sounds like the constant energy required to constantly let go. Letting go also requires energy.

Mmmm… I am not sure about the above because the previous verses do not imply the Buddha abandoned unwholesome thoughts but then later those unwholesome thoughts recurred. The previous paragraphs say:

“As I abided thus, diligent, ardent, and resolute, a thought of ill will arose in me…a thought of cruelty arose in me. I understood thus: ‘This thought of cruelty has arisen in me. This leads to my own affliction, to others’ affliction, and to the affliction of both; it obstructs wisdom, causes difficulties, and leads away from Nibbāna.‘ When I considered thus…it subsided in me. Whenever a thought of cruelty arose in me, I abandoned it, removed it, did away with it.

“Bhikkhus, whatever a bhikkhu frequently thinks and ponders upon, that will become the inclination of his mind. If he frequently thinks and ponders upon thoughts of sensual desire, he has abandoned the thought of renunciation to cultivate the thought of sensual desire, and then his mind inclines to thoughts of sensual desire. If he frequently thinks and ponders upon thoughts of ill will…upon thoughts of cruelty, he has abandoned the thought of non-cruelty to cultivate the thought of cruelty, and then his mind inclines to thoughts of cruelty.


My view on this matter is unshakeable. I’m in the Buddhadasa, Brahm & Sujato camp here. :smile:


And what implication do you think this has?

For me, the passage can be easily misinterpreted, as though the Buddha’s concentration was directly (rather than indirectly) the product of his willfulness. For me, samadhi is like draining water. You exercise the will to remove dirt/soil & other obstacles to the flow of water. When these obstacles are removed, the water flows on its own natural gravitation force, with increasing ‘momentum’, through the hole/channel the exercise of your will cleared. This example demonstrates the meaning of samadhi as “collectedness”. The meditator’s will/intent opens a hole/channel and the consciousness naturally gathers/collects itself and flows concentrated through that hole/channel. In summary, the will or thought clears the hole or clears the hindrances. When the hindrances are cleared, consciousness gathers or collects itself into that now empty space in the mind. Something like this. Nice to discuss this matter together. Its late here now. :pray:t2:


There’s the panner sutta AN 3.101 which shows how thoughts are reduced and refined from mundane towards Supermundane, with the last type of thoughts remaining being about the dhamma, which I take to mean the awakening factor of dhamma-vicaya, which I also take to mean observing and ridding the mind of the 5 hindrances.

This is backed up by MN 48 about sotapannas:

And how does the view that is noble and emancipating lead one who practices it to the complete ending of suffering? It’s when a mendicant has gone to a wilderness, or to the root of a tree, or to an empty hut, and reflects like this, ‘Is there anything that I’m overcome with internally and haven’t given up, because of which I might not accurately know and see?’ If a mendicant is overcome with sensual desire, it’s their mind that’s overcome. If a mendicant is overcome with ill will, dullness and drowsiness, restlessness and remorse, doubt, pursuing speculation about this world, pursuing speculation about the next world, or arguing, quarreling, and disputing, continually wounding others with barbed words, it’s their mind that’s overcome. They understand, ‘There is nothing that I’m overcome with internally and haven’t given up, because of which I might not accurately know and see. My mind is properly disposed for awakening to the truths.’ This is the first knowledge they have achieved that is noble and transcendent, and is not shared with ordinary people.

Notice mundane view (pursuing speculation about this/next world) is abandoned as well.

This here is “thinking about the dhamma” aka dhamma-vicaya, which is again mirrored in “thoughts of a great man” sutta AN 8.30

“Good, good, Anuruddha! It’s good that you reflect on these thoughts of a great man: ‘This teaching is for those of few wishes, not those of many wishes. It’s for the contented, not those who lack contentment. It’s for the secluded, not those who enjoy company. It’s for the energetic, not the lazy. It’s for the mindful, not the unmindful. It’s for those with immersion, not those without immersion. It’s for the wise, not the witless.’ Well then, Anuruddha, you should also reflect on the following eighth thought of a great man: ‘This teaching is for those who don’t enjoy proliferating and don’t like to proliferate, not for those who enjoy proliferating and like to proliferate.’

First you’ll reflect on these eight thoughts of a great man. Then whenever you want, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unskillful qualities, you’ll enter and remain in the first absorption, which has the rapture and bliss born of seclusion, while placing the mind and keeping it connected


Thanks for this, it aligns with the previous discussion we had about outsiders also telling the Buddha that they too overcome the 5 hindrances and develop the 7 factors of awakening. Were the 4 jhanas a unique discovery of the Buddha? - #14 by Thito

Then sorry but there’s no point having a conversation

I also believe that people can have success with both but I see people trying visuddhimagga/hindu? style meditation for years or decades without achieving anything and not trying anything else either because they believe that the jhanas can’t be anything else. They are the victims of this ‘only this is true and nothing else’ attitude which the Buddha criticized a number of times in the suttas.

Well then you may be surprised to learn that people likely haven’t been practicing at all for centuries and most probably millenias.

It totally can and personally I don’t try to pretend that it doesn’t. The problem is the one I mentioned above when people are stuck and fail to try anything else.


Yes there is a chance if vsm is wrong about what jhana is then people cannot benefit from the various similes the Buddha gave to master jhana practice. Bhante Thanissaro has a good image for this somewhere when people get lost in the mountains and mistakenly believe to be in a certain spot on the map, they misinterpret the entire landscape around them.


This may sound bananas, but seriously… Why not? We can still learn about where different perspectives come from, even if we’re not willing to change our minds. And isn’t that the point?

Like Carl, I can’t be convinced that Ajahn Brahm is wrong by a stranger on the internet. Ajahn Brahm’s word carries much more weight to me. But why would that be a problem for having a conversation? Unless the aim was to change the other person’s mind… And I really hope it isn’t.

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That is certainly the primary reason why I communicate with others, other than for purely practical purposes. If my mind hasn’t been changed even slightly by a particular discourse, even if it’s just being a tad bit enriched with new context on a topic or something, or if I have not even been able to change someone else’s mind on a topic then I consider the discourse to be rather a waste of time. I enjoy changing my mind through engaging with alternative points of view. That’s why I read the books that have been callously disregarded in this very thread: to change my mind. Echo chambers are useless chatter.

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Life is short and we have much more productive things to do


Indeed MN 19 is not so linear. It is back and forth to make clear the overlap steps.

  • Actively removing/preventing 3 bad thoughts to manifest & generate/maintain 3 good thoughts to enter/maintain 1st jhana.

  • Then after successful with 1st jhana, Actively stilling of vitakka vicara of 3 good thoughts to enter/maintain 2nd jhana. Because maintaining vitakka vicara is tiring the body/mind in the long run.

Agreed. Try to correlate the texts with MN 125 or MN 107 which include Satipathana in training of Samma samadhi.

MN 125:

Then the Realized One guides them further: ‘Come, mendicant, dwell seeing an aspect of the body as the body, but don’t think thoughts connected with sensual pleasures. Dwell seeing an aspect of feelings … citta … dhamma, but don’t think thoughts connected with sensual pleasures.’

As the thinking and pondering are stilled, they enter and remain in the second jhana … third jhana … fourth jhana.

Now the samadhi part of N8FP include samma vayama (effort), samma sati (introspection to within) and samma samadhi (balance).

If one is successful in development of Samadhi part of N8FP, it is possible to maintain it for 24/7.

Mistake repeated for a very long time is still a mistake. But nevertheless the claim was about contemporary theravadin praxis - which is a revival of previously forgotten meditation practice that began around 19th century.

It seems to me that the claim is stronger than that. If only Ajahn Nyanamoli’s conception of Jhāna is correct then not only orthodox Theravāda is wrong but so is the esoteric form of Theravādin meditation as well as Sarvāstivādin and Sautrāntika, since they all involved some measure of focusing/concentrating, nimittas and the fading away of the body/ 5 senses to certain degrees. If people want to believe that only 1 monk, or a handful of them, know how to enter Jhāna they can but it doesn’t give much confidence in practicing the Dhamma. It would mean 2000 odd years of no Arahants in any known traditions, but suddenly we can practice the Dhamma fully today (with the west coming to the rescue).

I hadn’t taken that into account Bhante. I made my claim based on the PTS Dictionary

Note. Looking at the combination vitakka + vicāra in earlier and later works one comes to the conclusion that they were once used to denote one & the same thing: just thought, thinking, only in an emphatic way (as they are also semantically synonymous), and that one has to take them as; one expression, like jānāti passati , without being able to state their difference. With the advance in the Sangha of intensive study of terminology they became distinguished mutually. Vitakka became the inception of mind, or attending, and was no longer applied, as in the Suttas, to thinking in general. The explains of Commentators are mostly of an edifying nature and based more on popular etymology than on natural psychological grounds.

Definitions for: vitakka (suttacentral.net)

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I edited one of my posts above but I’ll copy the edit here because it is pertinent:

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…

So it’s more than just Nyanamoli in terms of contemporary Theravada.

Also, from another one of my previous posts

Furthermore, Ch’an/Zen contains within it a heavy emphasis on “broad awareness” type meditations like shikantaza, simply directly observing the mind, and is, in fact, the oldest living Buddhist meditation tradition in the world, having records of lineage going back all the way to Bodhidharma and then the Buddha himself. My guess is that the majority of arahants throughout time have been Ch’an masters, partially because the Ch’an/Zen tradition is so old and had such laser-focus on meditation and Awakening-in-this-life for its entire history, but primarily just because of demographics. Ch’an/Zen has stuff like koans, “just sitting”, broad awareness qigong energy manipulation, you name it. They really went to town with meditation and experimented with everything.


Theravada just didn’t do very much meditation for a very long time, or at least not in an institutionalized, organic, dynamic, focused way like the Ch’an/Zen. The Dhamma has never been dead, it was just primarily being done in China rather than Sri Lanka. And that’s not even to say that it wasn’t ever being practiced in Sri Lanka, just that the Theravada meditation tradition very clearly ran out of steam and eventually died. Not exactly a healthy sign of success…

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