In the standard formula in which the meditator sits down, before the Jhanas, we have:
nisīdati… paṇidhāya parimukhaṃ satiṃ upaṭṭhapetvā
which literally means 'he sits down and aspires to create memory around his mouth’
I know - sati is supposed to be ‘mindfulness’, parimukha ‘in front of him’ etc. I try and see if there is a legitimate literal interpretation. So my question - is it possible that this passage means that he sits down and recites a portion of the teaching concerning his meditation?
To me at least ‘mindfulness in front of him’ isn’t helpful, yet it seems to indicate something very specific.
In the standard formula in which the meditator sits down, before the Jhanas, we have:
to me it makes perfect sense, i know how it feels as when i wish to establish mindfulness for meditation my focus is brought right in front of me with a sense of here, a sense of presence in the here and now somehow naturally coincides with beaming with attention the area at the front, but nothing in partucular
It seems to me that it has nothing to do with the mouth or any such facial part, but instead is an idiom meaning “foremost”, or perhaps “front & center”.
Perhaps somewhat connected to the modern idiom “In your face”, but not so aggressive…
I’ve heard Ajahn Brahm translates parimukhaṃ as “priority”, meaning you put a lot of importance of just being aware and letting go of the other distractions during bhavana . Hope this helps.
Parimukha is indeed a somewhat obscure idiom, but I think it is mostly just a synonym for mindfulness. Something like “presence of mindfulness.”
Here are some possible pieces to the puzzle:
Iti 85 mentions asubhānupassanā, ānāpānassati and sabbasaṅkhāresu aniccānupassanā. But only ānāpānassati gets the parimukha. The first and third observations simply get viharatha.
Is it possible that parimukha is used for ānāpānassati only? It might lead to focus on the nostrils after all…
Ud 7.8 has parimukha in the context of kāyagatā sati.
It might be that ānāpānassati is meant here as well.
The vinaya in Pi Tv Kd 15 at least has parimukha in a very literal sense, as a body part where hair grows (why is it translated as chest?), that would speak against a purely idiomatic use?
Also Sanskrit dictionaries give no idiomatic meanings at all, rather literally “round or about the face”, rarely used though.
Finally, since we find this word basically only in a stock formula, and not in other natural contexts, may I speculate that there might be a corruption here? wouldn’t parimuktam / parimuktim --> parimuttam make much more sense?
I don’t suppose this could be backed by the āgamas, but does anyone have Bh. Anālayo’s rendition of the Chinese stock formula at hand?
I’ve researched this before, and no, it’s not the case. it’s used in the gradual training before abandoning the hindrances, elsewhere in the context of the brahmaviharas, and so on. This argues against a literal “spatial” interpretation.
One of the mysteries of life. Here it obviously means “around the mouth”.
In Bh. Anālayo’s ‘A Comparative Study of the Majjhima-nikāya Volume 1’, p.350 we find for parimukham
- putting mindfulness in front (+30 times in EĀ)
- keeping the mind at the tip of the nose (1 time in all Āgamas)
- establishing unification of the mind (1 time?)
The text contains the idea that parimukham would basically refer to ānāpānassati
I’m still not content with parimukham as ‘in front’ etc. because we only have this very narrow textual environment for it. If it really was an adverb of place we would find it in other different contexts, objects, variations, everyday descriptions etc. Like this it hardly signifies anything, simply because we don’t have the material for it to work as a metaphor, and literally (‘around the mouth’) it makes not much sense, unless we understand it as ‘tip of the nose’ for ānāpānassati. But then why not parināsām or parināsāpuṭam? For me at least this represents a corruption in the transmission.
It also appears as a stock phrase in quite a number of Mahāyāna sūtras, including most versions of the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā, although not in the earliest and most popular translation (Kumārajīva). Some common forms:
正念現前 - Paramārtha and Bodhiruci - correct mindfulness at the fore
住對面念 - Xuanzang - abide with mindfulness at the fore
正念而住 - Yijing - correctly mindful, abiding
All of these would be interpretations from around the 6th to 7th century. Notably, none of them interprets the expression as anything related to the body.
There are some explanations given by the Sarvāstivādins, by Asaṅga, and others, but they don’t look especially interesting or informative. The “fore” is usually interpreted as basically meaning the mind, as in looking out into the mind.
Thanks so much for this addition, llt!
We might have here a classic case of an intransparent transmission and traditions trying to be faithful and make the best of the original text
Do you have a reference or details on this?
That is at least how I understand Bh. Anālayo’s treatment of the text… Here are the quotes:
“Regarding the subject of mindfulness of breathing, the two versions [MN 62 and EĀ 17.1] exhibit some interesting differences in their detailed exposition of this topic… The Majjhima-nikāya account at this point recommends establishing mindfulness “in front” (parimukha), an expression that according to the explanation given in the Vibhaga and the Paaisambhidāmagga refers to the nostril area as the proper location for being mindful of the breath. This explanation is reflected in the Ekottarika-āgama discourse, which explicitly instructs that one should be “keeping the mind at the tip of the nose”.
The standard pericope description of sitting down for meditation in other Ekottarikaāgama discourses, however, does not mention the nose tip, but speaks just of putting mindfulness “in front”. This leaves open the possibility that the instruction to keep the mind at the tip of the nose in the Ekottarika-āgama parallel to the Mahārāhulovāda-sutta could have been an explanatory gloss on the practice of mindfulness of breathing that, either during the period of transmission or at the time of translation, became part of the discourse itself.”
The footnote here quotes: “Vibh 252,12: “mindfulness is established, well established, at the nose tip or the upper lip, therefore it is said: ‘having established mindfulness in front’”, sati upaaahitā hoti supaaahitā nāsikagga vā mukhanimitte vā, tena vuccati parimukha, sati, upaaahapetvā ti”
Oh, okay, he’s saying that the commentarial gloss “at the nose tip” became included in the sutta. The fact that the explanation is found in both an EA sutta and the Abhidhamma Vibhanga suggests that it quite old and/or widespread.
To establish that the phrase in fact refers to the nose tip, we would first need to establish that the passages where parimukha is used without preceding anapanasati are spurious. That’s possible, but I haven’t seen the case made.
But couldn’t it also mean that anapanasati was ‘the’ Jhana method? That unless otherwise mentioned the royal way to Jhana was not asubha, the saññas or the anussatis but anapanasati? In that case parimukha would be the hint and the seperate mention of anapana would have been deemed unnecessary.
But in fact the only way this could be true is if the stock passage with parimukham was produced around anapanasati and then indiscriminately used in all kinds of meditation introductions. The uniformity of this passage and the inexplicable use of parimukha as an adverb (and not the use of a more common word) could be an expression for that. But it is a strong assumption nonetheless.
I’d need to see a strong textual argument for this. It seems to me there are just so many different forms of meditation through the suttas, I doubt if we can reduce the complexity with such ease.
So I used the SuttaCentral search engine to browse through all parimukha references.
They are found equally in AN, SN and MN - less in DN and KN.
Most references don’t mention any meditation method, they just generally describe going into the forest… entering the jhāna. In about another 30% we have parimukha --> hindrances --> jhāna. In the MN this is mostly in the context of describing the gradual training.
And then there are a few suttas with more interesting content relating to our question - and they mostly have parimukha (in the following ‘p’) indeed in connection with ānāpānassati. Most of these are connecting not defining but by sequence, with three exceptions describing ānāpānassati with p. In detail:
AN 3.63 is THE exception. Here we have p --> jhāna, p–> brāmavihāra, p–> understanding I cut off greed, hatred delusion. No mention of ānāpānassati or kayagata sati at all
AN 10.60 is as one of the main meditation suttas of interest. Here we have the 10 saññā, but only ānāpānassati (which is not litereally a saññā) in defining connection with parimukha: “And what, Ānanda, is mindfulness of breathing? Here, a bhikkhu, having gone to the forest, to the foot of a tree…”
SN 54 as the ānāpānasamyutta has in each of the 20 suttas p in connection with ānāpānassati
MN 10 has the many meditations, but again p only before ānāpānassati
MN 119 is the same, p only before ānāpānassati
MN 118 obviously too
MN 62 as another main meditation sutta is peculiar. Rahula sits with parimukha, Sariputta sees him and THEN tells him to do ānāpānassati . Further on more meditations are described, but again, only in connection with ānāpānassati we have p.
DN doesn’t provide interesting details, just DN 22 is as MN 10
KN has a few instances…
Iti 85 is interesting. It has a) ānāpānassati, b) sabbasaṅkhāresu aniccānupassanā and c) asubhānupassanā. p again only in connection with ānāpānassati with the sentence: “ānāpānassati vo ajjhattaṃ parimukhaṃ sūpaṭṭhitā hotu”
“When mindfulness of breathing is inwardly well established parimukham (before one? at the tip of the nose?)” - is the rest an exact translation? I count this is as a defining connection of p and ānāpānassati too.
Ud 7.8 has p with kayagata sati in general, with no mention of ānāpānassati. So that is the second kind-of-exception.
Ps 1.3 again p with ānāpānassati
Finally in the Vinaya we have another direct link of p. and ānāpānassati
Pi Tv Bu Vb Pj 3: “And how is samādhi by mindfulness of breathing developed and cultivated in this way? “A monk sits down in the wilderness, at the foot of a tree, or in an empty hut. He crosses his legs, straightens his body, and establishes mindfulness in front of him”
Conclusion: If parimukha appears in connection with a specific meditation it is in overwhelming majority with ānāpānassati. Sometimes we have other meditations in the same sutta but only ānāpānassati with parimukha (AN 10.60, MN 10, MN 62, MN 119, Iti 85), and two-three times even explaining ānāpānassati with the parimukha passage (AN 10.60, Iti 85, Pi Tv Bu Vb Pj 3).
I didn’t expect this clear connection, but now I think that ānāpānassati actually from the beginning (and not just in Abdhidhamma and commentaries) is described as watching the breath literally ‘around the mouth’ or ‘around the face’ or ‘at the tip of the nose’.
If this is the case, and parimukha would always hint ānāpānassati, then the passages with parimukha that are directly followed by the first jhāna would mean that it was achieved by ānāpānassati.
Open question: has someone already collected the meditations that explicitly lead to the first jhāna other than by ānāpānassati and/or the parimukha passage? (except maybe AN 1.395-574 where almost every dhamma aspect seems to be suitable to develop jhāna…)
Richard Shankman made this argument in The Experience of Samadhi .
Shankman in his appendix I think rather relates the Visuddhimagga and tries to make sense of the Rahulasutta, anapanasati and parimukham in order to get to an opinion if parimukha is supposed to be understood metaphorically or literally. I was rather trying not to go by sense but by seeing the suttas as an interrelated corpus of texts, in which contexts parimukha appears and in which not. I have my doubts if the Buddha really mechanically repeated this passage verbatim over his 50 years of teaching. But to see that the texts make this close connection of anapanassati and parimukham is I think significant for the understanding of the time of compilation.
That’s an interesting argument, thanks Gabriel. there certainly does seem to be an association, but I am still not clear why. It seems to me we have two approaches:
- Spatial interpretation: As you argue, anapanassati is directly connected with parimukha. In this case the other contexts would be secondary, in some cases clumsily, eg the Rahula Sutta.
- Non-spatial interpretation: Anapanassati is not directly connected with parimukha. The reason for the prevalence is because anapanassati was the prime example of meditation, especially mindfulness meditation, and its association with parimukha is secondary.
How are we to say which hypothesis is right? Well, one test would be to look at the parallels in Chinese and Sanskrit, etc. Not so much the actual translation of the term as the patterns of usage.
If we find that contexts that suggest anapanassati is not connected with parimukha are similar in the parallels this tends to confirm the non-spatial hypothesis. If they are different it supports the spatial hypothesis.
As you’d expect, it’s complicated! EA 17.1 is the parallel for MN 62, and the opening narrative is very similar. However it seems to use an unconventional phrase to describe the sitting in meditation, and it’s not clear if it’s a translation of parimukha.
He focussed with all his heart, mindful that form, feeling, perception, activities, and consciousness are impermanent.
in the Sanskrit texts, we regularly find pratimukha rather than parimukha, something that further complicates the issue. Parimukha is not attested at all in the Sanskrit texts on SC. (In most cases we can expect the Chinese to have translated from something like this as well.)
Note that pratimukha is attested across multiple schools, including Mahasanghika (Mahavastu) and Sarvastivada, and early and late texts. In the 19 hits I get for these on SC, none of them, from a cursory examination, appear to deal with anapanassati at all. But like I said, this is just a quick skim.
In the Sanskrit dictionaries, the dominant sense of pratimukha seems to be “presence”. This sense is quite widely attested, so it would be interesting to check these passages. In Manusmriti 8.291 it’s used in the context of a chariot accident, meaning tiryakpratimukhāgate, meaning that the chariot is turned aside or backwards (or something like that!). In a commentary to the Bhagavadgita it’s used as a gloss on abhimukha, in the sense of rivers “facing” the sea.
Parimukha in the Sanskrit dictionaries is only referenced in Panini, which seems to confirm that it is not used in a doctrinal sense by the Sanskritic Buddhists at all.
The strong prevalence of pratimukha is very noteworthy, and it suggests we should be cautious about interpreting solely based on the Pali meaning of parimukha, which might not even be the original term. If it is indeed the case that the Sanskritic texts don’t associate it with anapanassati, perhaps that association is an accident arising from editorial choices in the Pali.